As a crucial deadline approaches, Coloradans turn out to speak their minds


DELTA, Colorado — It had all the makings of good old-fashioned American-style democracy: supporters bused in from far away, a meeting room packed beyond capacity with citizens ready to speak their minds, and — in a move that carried a faint whiff of the days of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall — a free barbecue.

But it didn’t quite come together. "The barbecue guy crapped out on us," says Brian Hawthorne. "We had to go get Kentucky Fried Chicken."

Hawthorne, who works for the Pocatello, Idaho-based BlueRibbon Coalition, was in Delta, Colo., on Nov. 2 to rally Coloradans to fight for motorized-vehicle access in national forests. Local conservation groups had their own tactics for turning out people who want roadless areas protected: The Western Colorado Congress organized carpools and bused supporters from surrounding towns.

It was all part of the latest chapter in a more than 30-year-old debate about how to protect the nation’s roadless national forest lands. In 2001, just before the Clinton administration ceded the White House to George W. Bush, the Forest Service announced that it was putting 58 million acres off-limits to road building, oil and gas drilling, logging and mining. President Bush immediately put a freeze on the rule. In July 2004, then-U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, who oversaw the Forest Service, announced that if governors want the agency to protect their state’s roadless areas, they must petition the agriculture department to do so by November 2006 (HCN, 7/25/05: Western governors wary of roadless forest mess).

Now, the Western states are deciding whether to file such petitions. Among them, Colorado has undertaken the most involved effort to get public input on the question. In June, the state Senate created a 13-member roadless area task force to hear public comment and make recommendations to Gov. Bill Owens, R. Funded by a $110,000 grant from the Forest Service, the task force is listening to public opinion in a series of seven meetings scheduled to go on through next June.

The first meeting, held at the county recreation center in Delta, a working-class town on the state’s Western Slope, went about as smoothly as the BlueRibbon Coalition’s barbecue. At least 500 people showed up for a meeting in a room the fire marshal says can hold only 170; those who couldn’t fit crammed into the hallways or stood outside and peered in the windows. Comments from the sometimes rowdy crowd were mixed, but the hearing never really got off the ground. Of 136 people who signed up to give their opinions to the task force, only 20 got the chance to speak before the task force concluded the meeting at the scheduled time.

For the second meeting, held Dec. 9 in Durango, "the first thing we did was get a bigger room," says Dawn Taylor Owens, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Natural Resources. More than 500 people turned out; this time they all fit.

Next year, the task force will hold meetings in Pueblo, Fort Collins, Steamboat Springs, Monte Vista and Glenwood Springs. Taylor Owens also says that the task force is considering adding another meeting on the Western Slope to make up for the Delta fiasco.

Other states courtroom-bound

Governors elsewhere are gathering public opinion in more informal processes. Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, R, has asked county commissioners for recommendations before he submits a petition; Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, D, is taking comment from county commissioners until March 1; and Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, R, is considering a similar tack.

Other states have been more aggressive. In August, the California attorney general’s office — joined by New Mexico’s attorney general and the state of Oregon — sued to reinstate the Clinton roadless rule. The lawsuit raises a number of issues, but "there’s fundamentally one legal principle at stake," says California Deputy Attorney General Claudia Polsky: whether the federal government violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by failing to conduct an adequate environmental analysis on the effects of rescinding the Clinton rule.

That rule went through a massive NEPA process, including more than 600 meetings and a record 1.6 million public comments. Veneman’s announcement last year shifted that burden to the states, but Polsky says the states are reluctant "to spend months and months conducting this process, which, under NEPA, should be the feds’ responsibility — it’s their land."

Polsky adds that there’s little assurance that the Department of Agriculture will respect the states’ wishes. In October, Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, D, petitioned the Department of Agriculture, asking that states be allowed to simply request that the Clinton roadless rule be left in place, without going through arduous, expensive and time-consuming public comment processes like the one in Colorado. U.S. Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey rejected the petition just two weeks after receiving it. Noting that Oregon was suing the federal government at the same time it submitted the petition, Rey wrote that "it would be more constructive for Oregon to withdraw from the current legal proceedings and engage the Department in a good faith discussion of protection for roadless values in Oregon." Washington state, which is not suing, has filed a petition identical to Oregon’s, but has yet to receive a response from Rey’s office.

While the states differ widely in how they’re responding to the agriculture department’s call for petitions, they’re clearly ready to resolve the roadless issue. "This has been nothing but lawsuits for years," says Mike Volesky, Gov. Schweitzer’s natural resources policy advisor. "For three decades or more, there’s been a lot of heat generated, but not much light."

The author is HCN associate editor.