Supporters of preventing future development on national forest lands in Routt County say doing so would not significantly affect the region's oil and gas industries.
Oil and gas industry executives counter that exploration in the region is important to the nation and that, when done correctly, has only a minimal effect on national forest lands.
The debate is likely to intensify as the state looks at how to manage its national forest lands in the wake of a recent Bush administration ruling about roadless areas.
"In Routt County, I don't think there's going to be much conflict with those industries and this roadless initiative," said Diane Mitsch Bush, vice chairwoman of the Routt County Planning Commission.
Mitsch Bush made the comment Tuesday morning at Colorado Mountain College, where a group of local conservationists met to kick off a months-long effort to raise awareness in Steamboat Springs and Routt County about preserving roadless areas in the Routt National Forest. Opposition to the effort could come, Mitsch Bush said, from recreational off-road vehicle users, logging businesses and the oil and natural gas industries.
The conservation group says roadless areas across the country are in jeopardy because of a ruling last spring by the Bush administration.
That ruling overturned the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, first approved in 2001, which set protections against development on national forest lands throughout the United States, including more than 4.4 million acres in eight national forests and grasslands in Colorado.
The Bush administration replaced the 2001 rule with a process that requires state governors to petition the Department of Agriculture for the protection of specified national forest lands in their states. The department will accept petitions from governors until Nov. 13, 2006.
This summer, Colorado became one of the first states to begin the petition process.
With a $115,000 grant from the U.S. Forest Service, Gov. Bill Owens and the Colorado Legislature created the Roadless Areas Review Task Force to advise the governor about which national forest lands to preserve and which to open to management or industry.
That task force is hosting public hearings to discuss the issue in areas close to the state's eight national forests that contain roadless areas. The first hearing was Nov. 2 in Delta, and the last is in Denver on July 19.
The task force will host a hearing May 18 in Steamboat to discuss the Routt National Forest.
The Routt National Forest covers 1,125,564 acres in northern Colorado.
Diann Ritschard, spokeswoman for the Forest Service in Steamboat, said the Routt National Forest has 32 inventoried roadless areas, totaling more than half a million acres.
In a state experiencing steady growth in oil and natural gas exploration, any acreage of that size is valuable.
"Natural resources are 70 percent of our tax base in Moffat County, and it certainly is over 50 percent in Routt County, as well," said Marianna Raftopoulos, the Northwest Colorado spokeswoman for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, or COGA. "When we shut off all these lands, we shut off not only our economy, but also the enjoyment the public has in going to these lands (on roads)."
COGA is the business and trade association for the oil and gas industries in Colorado. Raftopoulos also is a former Moffat County commissioner.
"Gas development surrounds us -- it's an energy source that we need to develop," she said Friday. "We need more production in the United States, and it can certainly come from the Rocky Mountain region. Issues such as preservation do affect what we can do."
Ken Wonstolen, senior vice president with COGA, said that although neither Routt nor Moffat counties is "in the top tier" of oil and gas development in Colorado, development is coming to the area. Applications for drilling permits have "picked up significantly" in Routt and Moffat counties, Wonstolen said, making roadless preservation an issue that should be approached with caution.
"We just ask (the task force) to keep in mind the significance of natural gas to the nation right now, given our energy situation, and factor that in accordingly," Wonstolen said.
Most of the applications for natural gas exploration are in western Routt County, Mitsch Bush said. Those applications involve privately owned and Bureau of Land Management lands, not Routt National Forest lands, and would not be affected by the roadless initiative, she added.
Coal mining also is a significant industry in Northwest Colorado.
According to the Bureau of Land Management, coal production from federal lands in Colorado has increased six-fold in the past 25 years. More than 2,000 people work in coal mining operations in the state.
"Coal is a major industry in Routt County," Mitsch Bush said. "And those are some of the best paying jobs in the county."
Again, supporters of roadless-area preservation say coal mining would not be affected.
"There's no coal in the mountains," said Richard Levy, president of the local Sierra Club chapter.
Harmful or harmless?
Raftopoulos agreed that natural resource development affects Moffat County more than Routt County, but she also noted that such development does not have to be excessively harmful to wilderness areas.
"These companies are coming in here and doing it right," she said. "They're doing it environmentally sound, following all the regulations and trying to leave the land as they found it."
At Tuesday's meeting at CMC, John Spezia of the Yampa Valley Community Alliance said even minimal effects on wilderness areas are significant.
"It's a bigger picture than just roads," said Spezia, who teaches ecology courses at CMC. Disruption of animal-migration paths, tainting of local water sources such as Fish Creek and shrinking of animal habitats all could result from the introduction of roads into undeveloped areas of the Routt National Forest, he said.
"This town is built around its scenic mountains. Steamboat would be shooting itself in the foot if it allowed the beauty of its surrounding forests to decay," Spezia said.
Kent Vertrees, manager of outfitting company Blue Sky West, stressed that for recreational users of Routt National Forest, access to existing roads and trails would not be lost.
Preventing further road development would help maintain outdoor opportunities in Routt County, including hiking, camping and hunting, Vertrees said, as well as the county's way of life.
That is the same reasoning the conservation group is using to muster local support for roadless preservation. So far, nearly 30 local businesses have pledged to support the group's efforts.
Linda Wells of the Western Colorado Congress -- a group the Colorado Oil and Gas Association calls "extremist" on its Web site -- said a public forum to prepare for the task force visit in May and to discuss roadless issues is at 7 p.m. Nov. 30 at Centennial Hall.
Ritschard said she just hopes to see a definitive policy, whatever that policy may be.
"The roadless rule has been controversial for several years," she said. "(The Forest Service in Routt County) would just like to have a policy that says, 'Yes, we will protect these roadless areas,' or, 'No, some of these roadless areas will be open for management.'"