PARACHUTE — While top environmental stewards in Washington, D.C., fine-tune a plan to protect 4.2 million acres of roadless public forests in Colorado, regional Forest Service managers are opening some of that land to oil and gas drilling.
Drilling rights for several thousand acres in the Elkhead Mountains west of Steamboat Springs and the Mamm Peak area on the Western Slope are to be auctioned in November.
Forest Service officials at the agency's regional headquarters in Denver declined to comment. Federal Bureau of Land Management officials confirmed the lease sale.
"It's up to the Forest Service, and we don't want to second-guess their decisions on how they manage federal lands," BLM spokesman Steven Hall said.
The offering of access to minerals under pristine roadless national forest land has injected new rancor into the wrangling over plans to protect last remaining roadless forests in Colorado and other Western states.
"It's looking like the current Forest Service regional leadership gives lip service to roadless area protection," said Mike Chiropolos, lands program director for Western Resource Advocates, "but its actions don't match its words."
The proposed lease sale also highlights a growing peril of the lengthy crafting of a plan to protect roadless forests: As decisions are delayed, incursions keep happening.
An aerial survey of several contested areas on Friday by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership revealed dozens of roads constructed over the past decade — many leading to well pads carved out of forest.
"We want to make sure the highest-value areas are safeguarded," said Nick Payne, Colorado field representative for the partnership, a national advocacy group.
Forest Service managers "should not be leasing parcels on roadless areas right now, until the rule is passed. Then we'll have firm guidelines," Payne said.
The core question many residents of western Colorado face is whether they stand to gain more in the long run from recreation industries, which require pristine forests, or mining and other extractive industries that need roads.
Hunting outfitter Jim Bryce, making a supply run from his camp in the currently roadless Currant Creek area this week, said roads into that contested pristine habitat would ruin his business. Currant Creek provides habitat for elk and deer.
Coal-mining companies that supply power plants in the eastern U.S. oppose roadless protection because they seek access to reserves.
"If they go in there and punch in coal mines and make roads, it'll be just another area cut up by roads. This whole country is getting cut up, and it affects the wildlife and everything else," said Bryce, 59, based in Delta, who has run his company for 31 years.
Oxbow Mining employs more than 300 miners at its Elk Creek mine nearby, and neighboring mines employ at least 700 more.
By early next year, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is expected to decide on the plan Colorado officials and regional foresters hashed out together over several years.
It offers top-tier protection to about 13 percent of the land protected under the Clinton-era roadless rule, which blocks most road-building on 4.4 million of the 14.5 million acres of national forest in Colorado.
Federal courts still are scrutinizing that 2001 rule. The Colorado proposal would make exceptions for mining, logging and ski-area expansion.
Environmental Protection Agency officials have urged the Forest Service to ensure top-tier protection for more land.
The drilling rights that federal foresters are offering have had stipulations attached in the past, limiting surface activities. Exceptions can be made. Energy companies also can drill horizontally so that wells adjacent to roadless forests could be used to extract gas and oil.
Some groups, such as the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, support that approach to development. Others do not.
"The impact of more energy development is going to result in more fragmentation, more isolation, of that roadless area," said Peter Hart, staff attorney for the Wilderness Workshop in Carbondale, who noted that the Forest Service already has approved 70 wells in the Mamm Peak area, where lynx, a threatened species, have been found.
"Lynx and other wildlife are using this area as a movement corridor, and connectivity is necessary to ensure that these species can survive," Hart said.