Oct. 17, 2006 – Last month, conservationists celebrated the restoration of federal protections to about 50 million acres of "roadless" public lands. But now, activists in Colorado are warning that an upcoming federal auction for energy-development leases is letting thousands of roadless acres slip through the cracks.
As part of its quarterly oil and gas leasing auction, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) plans to offer more than 130,000 federal acres in the state. The leases would generally allow energy companies to extract resources and construct roads and pipelines.
The auction, set for November 9, would include over 600 acres of national forest land in the Sunnyside Roadless Area in western Colorado. Officially designated as "roadless," the land is shielded from industrial and commercial activities under a landmark federal rule enacted in 2001, which restricts development on roadless areas throughout the country.
Though BLMâ€™s sale notice indicates that leases may be subject to certain environmental regulations, the government has the authority to suspend or limit rules to suit the interests of individual lease-holders.
Steve Smith, assistant regional director for the Wilderness Society, told The NewStandard that conservationists are wary that opening protected lands to commercial interests through auctions could reduce the enforcement of roadless protections to the governmentâ€™s "judgement call." "If [the regulation] gets waived or it gets altered as development happens," he said, "then that roadlessness has been damaged."
In a joint statement issued last week, the Colorado Environmental Coalition, Wilderness Society, Forest Guardian, Wilderness Workshop and High Country Citizens Alliance denounced the auction plan as a potential violation of the recently reinstated protections. The groups called for a withdrawal of the proposed roadless leases "until and unless they include prohibitions on new road-building."
The Bush administration repealed the original "roadless rule" in 2005, basically shifting the responsibility of protecting roadless areas onto individual states. Last month, a California federal district court struck down the White House policy altogether in a legal challenge brought by conservation groups and state governments. Though the decision might still be overturned on appeals brought by the timber industry or other opponents, it effectively reinstated the previous roadless protections.