Roadless recommendations due out in September |

Roadless recommendations due out in September

DENVER (AP) ” After months of listening to the public, government experts and each other, members of a task force started crafting recommendations Wednesday on how 4.4 million acres of remote national forest land in Colorado should be managed.

The 13-member panel formed by the Legislature and Gov. Bill Owens plans to submit a proposal by mid-September recommending whether the land declared off-limits to development under the Clinton administration should still be protected.

“It’s hard, it’s slow,” said Russell George, head of the state Department of Natural Resources. “But the group has held together very well.”

George, the task force chairman, said the group intends to give the public a chance to comment on its suggestions before a final version is sent to the governor.

The land the task force is studying is scattered among several national forests across the state. The sites were among 58.5 million acres covered by a ban on road-building, logging and other activities but potentially opened to development by the Bush administration last year.

The new rule was drafted after a federal judge in Wyoming threw out the Clinton-era rule in 2003.

The federal government gave governors 18 months to petition to protect some or all the land. The Colorado task force will forward recommendations to Owens, whose proposal goes to a federal advisory board and then to the agriculture secretary, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service.

Task force member Rep. Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, said in the beginning, some of his colleagues supported maintaining a ban on new roads on the land while others endorsed leaving the decision up to managers of the individual forests. Now, Penry said, he sees the group melding those positions: support for a statewide standard with exceptions that give forest managers some flexibility.

“I think people are willing to work toward the common goal of agreement. It’s in both sides’ interests,” Penry said. “Nobody wants to pave over the national forests.”

Hundreds of people have turned out for most of public hearings across the state. Colorado hunters, anglers, outfitters and environmentalists, along with at least 18 cities, towns and counties, have called on the task force and Owens to seek protection for all 4.4 million acres. They say the land, much of it considered too remote for logging and other development, is among the state’s last pristine places that protect wildlife and watersheds and provide recreation.

Off-road vehicle users argue that public lands should be open to everybody and note that some of the land already has trails and roads. The Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition, which says it represents 200,000 Coloradans, fears that leaving the areas designated as roadless is a precursor to making them wilderness areas, which are off-limits to motorized vehicles.

Some of the land under review by the task force will be offered for oil and gas leasing at Bureau of Land Management auction Aug. 10 auction in Denver.

The areas are among 2.2 million acres that were identified as eligible for development under individual forest plans when the road-building ban was lifted.

A small amount of the Colorado land included in the ban had oil and gas operations on it, said Melody Holm, program manager for leasable minerals for the regional Forest Service office in Denver. She said the Forest Service is trying to determine how much of the 4.4 million acres of roadless areas have been declared suitable for energy development under current forest management plans.

The Bush administration has approved petitions from the governors of Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina to bar commercial logging on a total of 555,000 acres of remote forest land in their states. The governors of Oregon, California, Washington, and New Mexico have joined in a lawsuit arguing that the Bush administration improperly replaced the rule. “””

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