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Colorado embraces drilling, pollution, roads



Thousands of miles of roads slicing through once-pristine wilderness. Energy companies drilling in the Vermillion Basin and polluting streambeds throughout the state. Increased commercial logging in the backcountry.

Those are just some of the things environmentalists fear Coloradans are about to witness as a result of the land and water policies of the George W. Bush administration, and in particular those pushed by his secretary of the interior, former Colorado Attorney General Gale Norton.

In terms of rolling back environmental protections, Bush is "more radical than any president in recent memory," said Jeff Widen, associate director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition.

Caving in to demands from state and local governments, the Interior Department is scaling back protections of federal lands and opening up loopholes to allow increased drilling, pollution and road building, Widen and other environmentalists lament.

In April, as part of a legal settlement with the state of Utah, the Interior Department announced it would stop proposing new wilderness study areas throughout its Western land holdings, and that it would remove existing protections for many areas that until then had been managed as wilderness.

The decision could affect some 600,000 acres of wilderness in Colorado, including the 27,000-acre Beaver Creek Wilderness in Fremont County, southwest of Colorado Springs.

Most at risk, state environmental groups say, are wilderness areas that hold significant oil and gas reserves, such as the Roan Plateau in Garfield County, on the Western Slope and the Vermillion Basin in the northwest corner of the state, known for its badlands, rugged canyons and petroglyphs.

"We consider the Vermillion Basin in the smack center of the target of the [Bush] administration's energy policy," Widen said. "It's an energy policy based on, 'We want to drill more fossil fuels on more public lands.'"

In another recent decision, the Interior Department agreed that local governments in Utah could claim rights-of-way across federal lands where highways have historically existed -- even if those "highways" are mere cattle trails. In May, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens' administration began negotiating a similar program with the Interior Department.

The deal could open up many new federal lands to paved highways or off-road vehicle access. In the Vermillion Basin, Moffat County has already filed claims to 2,000 miles of highway right-of-way.

The Bush administration's rollbacks are also affecting water resources. In March, the Interior Department agreed to surrender some of its water rights in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, near Montrose, to the state of Colorado.

That means water from the Gunnison River could be sucked out of the park to quench the thirsty Front Range, says Claudia Putnam of the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies, a Boulder-based environmental group.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration is seeking to exempt certain "isolated" bodies of water, such as seasonal streams that are dry much of the year, from the federal Clean Water Act.

"The problem," says Putnam, "is 76 percent of the streams in the West are seasonal."

This policy shift could especially impact areas of Colorado such as Delta and Las Animas counties, which are rich in coal-bed methane gas. The process of extracting coal-bed methane can produce significant water pollution, and if seasonal streams are exempted from the Clean Water Act, companies drilling for coal-bed methane may be able to pollute streambeds with impunity, Putnam says.

Other moves by the Bush administration are making it tougher for the public to weigh in on land-use decisions, says Rocky Smith, of the Durango-based group Colorado Wild.

The Department of Agriculture, Smith says, is working to limit the public's ability to appeal land-management projects in national forests, ranging from grazing leases to ski-area expansions and timber sales.

Of particular concern, Smith says, are forest-thinning projects that are being pushed to prevent wildfires. Colorado Wild and other environmental groups agree that thinning needs to take place, but they fear it won't happen where it's needed most -- near people's homes. Smith fears that if the public can't weigh in on thinning projects, the projects may be abused to increase commercial logging in the backcountry.

"There needs to be some public oversight," Smith said.

Terje Langeland

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