Wildlands Update...
compiled by Mark Pearson & Jean Smith, Chapter Wilderness & Ecosystem Mapping Co-chairs


Forest Service Giving Away 'Highways' through Wilderness

In May the Rio Grande National Forest turned over management of an alpine trail to Alamosa County, a trail closed to motor vehicles last year because of environmental damage. At the urging of motorized recreation groups, the county asserted that this trail was a "public highway" under a little-known law passed in 1866. The Forest Service had closed the Blue Lakes jeep trail above Como Lake near Blanca Peak 18 months ago to protect alpine tundra from ruts and erosion that were degrading the water quality of nearby alpine lakes.

Based only on a few maps and surveys presented by motorized vehicle lobbyists, the forest supervisor surrendered management of the trail to Alamosa County without public notice or involvement. The Rio Grande National Forest is now working to surrender up to 65 more roads and trails to other counties, including several within the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness and others closed recently to motorized use to protect forest resources.

In 1866 Congress passed a provision known as R.S. 2477 to grant rights-of-way for "construction of highways over public lands" not reserved for other uses. The motorized vehicle lobby and other special interests have seized on R.S. 2477 as a tool to punch motorized trails through potential and existing wilderness and to hog-tie federal agencies managing trails to protect water quality, wildlife and solitude. President Clinton earlier this year killed a bill that would have interpreted the law so broadly that it could have allowed counties to pave new roads across national parks, wildlife refuges and other public lands.

The Clinton Administration is drafting legislation to set fair rules for determining when "public highways" were actually "constructed." Although the Department of the Interior is pressing to set some reasonable limits on when counties can claim rights-of-way, the Forest Service, part of the Department of Agriculture, is pushing a policy that would permit counties to claim that a highway had been constructed where someone had moved small rocks or trampled weeds on a trail. The Forest Service's proposal is based on the Reagan Administration's "Hodel Policy," but it would surrender trails to counties even more easily than required by that policy!

What You Can Do: Tell the Forest Service that this trail give-away must end. The Forest Service should follow the Department of the Interior's lead and stop processing all R.S. 2477 claims until the Clinton Administration adopts a reasonable, uniform policy. Write Chief Michael Dombeck, USDA Forest Service, 14th & Independence Avenue S.W., Washington, D.C. 20250, FAX (202) 205-1765. Ask him to: (1) immediately impose a moratorium on processing R.S. 2477 claims; and (2) junk the Hodel Policy and adopt stricter standards for defining "public highways."


Bureau Of Land Management Takes Another Look at Roadless Areas

This past summer the Colorado state office of the Bureau of Land Management undertook review of five roadless areas proposed as wilderness by Colorado conservationists. The five areas are located in northwest Colorado and have been the subject of fierce battles over whether to protect their wild character or open them wide to development. Colorado conservationists advocate wilderness designation for these areas, while oil companies aim to build roads and drill exploratory wells.

Last year the Colorado BLM state director adopted a policy of not issuing oil leases in roadless areas proposed for wilderness by Sierra Club and other groups. Marathon Oil sued BLM over this policy, and even though Marathon's suit was thrown out of court, BLM decided to undertake a review of several controversial roadless areas, including the 88,000-acre Vermillion Basin area near Browns Park National Wildlife Refuge. BLM invited members of various public interest groups, including conservationists, ranchers, motorized recreationists and mining industry representatives to accompany BLM field staff on a review of these areas.

BLM has a two-step process in mind. First, BLM will decide if the five areas are truly "roadless," meaning they lack vehicle routes that were constructed and maintained and which receive regular use. This is a difficult decision in many cases where two parallel tracks snake across open sage-covered hillsides. BLM should issue a decision in September on the roads or lack thereof in the five areas, subject to a 30-day comment period.

After the areas' roadless character is determined, BLM will analyze the wilderness values in each area and decide whether to amend existing land use plans to provide protection for these wild characteristics. In short, should BLM formally remove these roadless areas from development activities, such as oil and gas leasing, to preserve Congress's option to protect the areas later as official wilderness?

Sierra Club volunteers participated in several of the summer field reviews. The volunteers spoke enthusiastically of the wild, empty beauty of these most remote regions of Colorado. The Vermillion Basin area, for example, may be the single most environmentally diverse wilderness proposed for all Colorado. It harbors many threatened plant species and rare plant communities; it holds the most extensive and dramatic petroglyph panels in the state; it includes colorful, eroded clay badlands as well as ancient pinon- juniper forests; and the area is extraordinarily productive for wildlife.

What You Can Do: Ask to be added to the mailing list for information about the roadless area reviews. Contact the Colorado State Office, Bureau of Land Management, 2850 Youngfield St., Lakewood, CO 80215, (303) 239-3700.


Doubling the Cut in Roadless Areas of Four National Forests

"Pristine roadless areas in Colorado and Southern Wyoming are under attack by the U.S. Forest Service, which plan to log more than 14,000 acres of untrammeled forest this year," proclaimed the Denver Post front page on August 28. Nineteen environmental groups, including the Sierra Club Rocky Mountain Chapter, delivered a letter to Forest Service Chief Dombeck, who told a Congressional committee in February that "it simply makes common sense that we avoid riparian, old growth and roadless areas."

Twelve sales calling for logging 57.7 million board feet in roadless areas is more than double the 1995 and 1996 proposed sales. Although Dombeck was not available to comment, Jeff Starnes, the regional timber sale preparation manager, said that cutting these trees is necessary to control fires and protect wildlife habitat and that roads are needed for fire fighting and so recreationists can enjoy the forest.

What You Can Do: Write to Regional Forester Elizabeth Estill, Forest Service, 740 Simms, Lakewood CO 80225, to protest this wholesale assault on roadless areas.