Seeking the road to compromise

More than 100 people turn out for roadless task force meeting

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— People in Northern Colorado care about public lands. They just have differing views about how to best care for them.

More than 100 people from several counties gathered at the Steamboat Springs Middle School gymnasium Thursday night. They were hoping to get a message to Gov. Bill Owens about the future of roadless areas in the Routt National Forest.

The meeting was one of a series being conducted throughout the state by the Roadless Areas Review Task Force. In accordance with a law passed by the Legislature last year, the 13-member bipartisan task force is charged with making a recommendation to the governor about how roadless areas should be managed. The governor will then submit a petition to the U.S. Forest Service on behalf of the state.

Diana Eubank of Steamboat told the task force her ability to enjoy motorized recreation in the national forest defines the depth of feeling she has for the land.

"We all take ownership of the forest," Eubank said. "We really care about it. We always leave it in better shape than when we found it. I'm really terrified that 'roadless' will become a self-fulfilling prophecy and we'll lose access to our trails. If that happens, I won't care as much about the forest."

However, Kent Vertrees, an outdoor guide, said people like Eubank should not fear losing access to existing forest roads.

"No roads will be removed," Vertrees said. "That makes it a no-brainer for me. I'll still be able to snowmobile. I'll still be able to use snowcats. I'll still be able to ride a dirt bike. The beauty of roadless is we still have access, while future generations will be left with intact ecosystems."

Motorized recreation wasn't the only issue that was debated.

Mary Peterson, forest supervisor for the Medicine Bow and Routt national forests told the task force the condition of the forest has changed significantly since the mid- to late 1990s, when forest management plans were drafted. Since then, the Routt Divide Blowdown of October 1997 killed countless thousands of trees, and others are still dying because of a resulting beetle infestation.

Peterson told the task force it should look closely at regions of the forest where areas of increased fire danger are in close proximity to roadless areas and communities.

"We used to call the Routt National Forest 'the asbestos forest,' but after major fires in 2002, we don't call it the asbestos forest any longer," Peterson said.

Chuck Vale, Routt County's director of emergency management, said he has concerns about the growing fire danger along boundaries between roadless areas and human habitation. Unincorporated Stagecoach is one of those areas, he said.

Rich Levy of a residents group called the Routt Forest Protection Group countered that the threat of wildfire shouldn't be used to remove roadless protections from wild areas. He is a veteran of fighting forest fires.

"Fear of wildfire should not limit roadless protection," Levy said. He argued that roadless rules provide tools that allow danger to be reduced.

Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger argued roadless rules unfairly deny equal access to public lands.

"Roadless areas are inherently discriminatory in terms of accessibility," Monger said. "I believe the people of Routt County are good stewards of the forest."

Brett KenCairn of the Community Alliance of the Yampa Valley called for cooperation among people on both sides of the issue. He is a community forester.

"We are in a real forest crisis," KenCairn said. He said it doesn't make sense to argue in favor of allowing more road building on the forest when underfunded government agencies don't have the resources needed to care for the roads they have. It's also not constructive to argue against all logging when small sawmills that use timber that has been selectively harvested can be part of the solution.

"If you're fighting, you're losing," KenCairn said. "We can't fight it out -- we must work it out."

The task force is due to make a recommendation to the governor by September.

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