A week after the Obama administration issued a statement in support of a State of Colorado proposal to open areas within 4.4 million acres of roadless national forest to new coal mining and oil and gas development, more than 500 scientists from across the country are calling on the Obama administration to stand behind the national roadless rule, which would preclude this activity. The scientists' message is referenced in conservation groups' Washington Post and Politico ads (PDF) running this week that call on the administration not to “exempt Colorado from roadless area safeguards.”
Dr. Stuart Pimm, Chair of Duke University's Department of Conservation, and Dr. Barry Noon, Professor of Wildlife Ecology at Colorado State University, were among 520 scientists who sent a letter to the president, released to the public today. It details the “scientific importance of this landmark environmental policy and our concern about attempts to undermine its protections” in Colorado. A second letter (PDF) from 33 prominent Colorado scientists also raises concerns with the state's proposal.
Colorado Governor Bill Ritter's April 6 proposal includes two controversial coal mine expansions by the privately held Oxbow Group and Arch Coal, both of which received an initial go-ahead from U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack last month, an action that raised concerns from more than 100 conservation and recreation groups. The Ritter proposal also would allow the development of 85 new oil and gas leases (PDF), pipelines, roads and well pads as well as construction of so-called “long-term temporary” roads that could last for more than 30 years and be built with minimal public review.
Initial analysis shows the state's proposal falls far short of the protections provided by the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which was issued to protect 58.6 million acres of undeveloped national forests. The Obama administration endorsed the popular policy and is currently defending it in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, where it is being challenged by the Colorado Mining Association, among others. The administration initially praised the Ritter proposal, which would subject hundreds of thousands of acres of Colorado's roadless areas to new road construction, logging and other development. This acreage has been protected from these activities under the 2001 Rule.
“Just a few weeks ago, the Obama administration defended the 2001 roadless rule in court,” said Jane Danowitz, director of the Pew Environment Group's U.S. public lands program. “Now it appears the White House may be stepping back and allowing a plan with significantly lower protection than the 2001 roadless rule, with new allowances for power lines, mining, and oil and gas drilling in our national forests. We urge the administration to honor its commitment to science-based policy, and to keep its promise to uphold the roadless rule.”
“With enough roads to circle the globe 15 times, our national forests are already a maze, and roadless areas are our last hope for protecting forests and watersheds that cleanse the air we breathe, purify the water we drink, and support the wildlife we enjoy in our national forests,” said Dominick DellaSala, president and chief scientist of the National Center for Conservation Science & Policy, a signer of today's ad. “More than 500 of the nation's scientists have called on the President to uphold the roadless conservation rule and reject the Colorado petition, because the highest and best use of these lands is to protect them.”
“The effect of building roads through roadless areas extend beyond the road itself,” said Colorado State University's Barry Noon. “Roadless areas in Colorado are characterized by steep slopes and erosive soils, and the unfortunate consequence is that road construction is a permanent transformation of the landscape.”
“Large blocks of forests protect watersheds and biodiversity, while their destruction massively contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and consequent climate disruption,” said Duke University's Pimm. “It is essential that we keep these forests intact and not sacrifice the ecosystem services they provide for the short-term profits of special interests.”
The Colorado proposal has been opposed by national and state-based conservation and sportsmen's groups, and more than 200,000 people nationwide.