The Esoteric World of Roadless Rules and Fuel Treatments I. Tree Removal in the 2001 and Colorado Roadless Rule

I think this photo is from Tom Troxel and is in Colorado.

This started out as a very long comment on the previous article on Utah. I was deeply involved in the development of the Colorado Roadless Rule. That is,  until one morning I came into work and was rather unceremoniously removed, at the behest of parties unknown, for reasons unknown (at least to me). To be honest, the whole episode was somewhere between unceremonious and ignominious. Despite that blip on the screen, I feel as if I have earned Roadless Geekhood status. Nevertheless, I could easily be wrong, so in the interests of explaining this, I’d appreciate any corrections.

Most Roadless discussions in the press and many public comments are at a pretty abstract level. “State opens up roadless areas to unmitigated logging” and so on. Even our own colleague, Dave Iverson, in an op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune wrote “I won’t attempt to guess Herbert’s true intentions for bringing this petition to the Forest Service. I do know it is not a sincere or comprehensive attempt to combat wildfires.”

Yet the 2001 Rule, as one of its authors Chris Wood once said “was not written on stone tablets.” As a general rule, any policy should have some kind of feedback mechanism for improvement. For example, in Colorado we had acres that weren’t really roadless in IRA’s and areas that should have been in IRA’s that weren’t. Swapping them around seemed like a good idea.

I am generally a fan of the 2001 Rule and think it was a great policy step forward (even in the early 90’s the idea was an alternative within the RPA Program). Nevertheless, there were things in it that fit those days,  but perhaps not today, as well as they might.

When we think about fuel treatments and roadless areas, we have to think about two things. The first is tree cutting and the second is removal. What does the 2001 Rule say?
Exception for cutting:

(ii) To maintain or restore the characteristics of ecosystem composition and structure, such as to reduce the risk of uncharacteristic wildfire effects, within the range of variability that would be expected to occur under natural disturbance regimes of the current climatic period;

In Colorado, we generally thought that that would work for ponderosa pine, but not so much for dead lodgepole (of which we had many acres). What is the “current climatic period?”  Isn’t that influenced by climate change? If so, then what is a “natural disturbance regime” for an unnatural and unknown going forward climate? Or is it the past climate? But that’s not what the regulations says.

And isn’t the whole thing a little dishonest when the purpose and need is really to provide a safe space for suppression folks to work and to change fire behavior? Through at least five years of discussions, we came to the conclusion that this was too fuzzy and could lead to litigation, and that the WUI needed something more specific. Many discussions of WUI definitions took place, as might be imagined.

As part of the negotiations, Colorado Roadless acres were divided into an “upper tier” and “non-upper tier”.  Public comment was received on the mapping and the restrictions in each tier.

Here’s what the Colorado Rule says:

CFR part 223, subpart A.
(c) Non-Upper Tier Acres. Notwithstanding the prohibition in paragraph (a) of this section, trees may be cut, sold, or removed in Colorado Roadless Areas outside upper tier acres if the responsible official, unless otherwise noted, determines the activity is consistent with the applicable land management plan, one or more of the roadless area characteristics will be maintained or improved over the longterm with the exception of paragraph (5) and (6) of this section, and one of the following circumstances exists:
(1) The Regional Forester determines tree cutting, sale, or removal is needed to reduce hazardous fuels to an at-risk community or municipal water supply system that is:
(i) Within the first one-half mile of the community protection zone, or
(ii) Within the next one-mile of the community protection zone, and is within an area identified in a Community Wildfire Protection Plan.
(iii) Projects undertaken pursuant to paragraphs (c)(1)(i) and (ii) of this section will focus on cutting and removing generally small diameter trees to create fuel conditions that modify fire
behavior while retaining large trees to the maximum extent practical as appropriate to the forest type.
(2) The Regional Forester determines tree cutting, sale, or removal is needed outside the community protection zone where there is a significant risk that a wildland fire disturbance event could adversely affect a municipal water supply system or the maintenance of that system. A significant risk exists where the history of fire occurrence, and fire hazard and risk indicate a serious likelihood that a wildland fire disturbance event would present a high risk of threat to a municipal water supply system.
(i) Projects will focus on cutting and removing generally small diameter trees to create fuel conditions that modify fire behavior while retaining large trees to the maximum extent practical as appropriate to the forest type.
(ii) Projects are expected to be infrequent.
(3) Tree cutting, sale, or removal is needed to maintain or restore the characteristics of ecosystem composition, structure and processes. These projects are expected to be infrequent.

Next post: Removal of Cut Trees and Temporary Roads
If someone knowledgeable about Idaho Roadless would tell us how fuel treatments are handled in the different themes, that would add to our discussion.

13 thoughts on “The Esoteric World of Roadless Rules and Fuel Treatments I. Tree Removal in the 2001 and Colorado Roadless Rule”

  1. On the Sawtooth NF or at least on the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, we were up front with the environmental community and during the Forest Planning process we deleted areas that did not meet the “roadless” standards and added those areas that should have been included. Everyone accepted this.

    The Colorado Rule, which occurred after I retired, seems to be similar to what we called “backcountry” in our initial Unit Plans. Areas would remain roadless and undeveloped but could have timber removal if necessary with the use of only temporary roads. Snowmobiles and ATVs were allowed on designated routes. This seemed to be a good alternative to recommending wilderness designation for these areas.

  2. David, that’s very interesting. I didn’t think that was allowed. I thought the IRA boundaries were mapped in the 2001 Rule and they were permanent. Was the Sawtooth Plan before the 2001 Rule?

  3. I was actually surprised to learn during the Pike San Isabel travel management process that motorized trails are actually allowed in roadless areas in Colorado.

    Both the Forest Service and the environmental groups have basically been treating them as wilderness areas, so any road or other motorized trail that extends into a roadless area has to be closed. They even want large buffer zones so that roads merely adjacent to roadless areas are closed.

    I just went up to Rampart Range today and drove several roads that are proposed for closure solely because they are near a roadless area and nothing else is wrong with them. There’s no legal basis to do that, but that’s what they’re doing. Not sure how to get the Forest Service to not treat roadless areas as just another type of Wilderness.

    • I am surprised that there continue to be areas of confusion about roadless. Having State-specific Rules doesn’t really help, and the fact that the 2001 was enjoined for a while, and the fact that while it was enjoined, there was still a process in the WO such that projects (even in our Circuit) were not allowed unless they followed the 2001 Rule, which as I’ve said before seemed like contempt of court to me. Given all that, though, the 2001 Roadless Rule was about roads and tree-cutting.

      Here’s what the response to comments in the 2001 says about trails:

      A trail is established for travel by foot, stock, or trail vehicle, and can be over, or under, 50 inches wide. Nothing in this paragraph as proposed was
      intended to prohibit the authorized construction, reconstruction, or maintenance of motorized or nonmotorized trails that are classified and managed as trails pursuant to existing statutory and regulatory authority and agency direction (FSM 2350). Nor was anything in this paragraph intended to condone or authorize the use of user created or unauthorized roads or trails. These decisions are made subject to existing agency regulations and policy
      and that intent has been retained in the final rule.

      You might want to check what the Colorado Roadless Rule says specifically. I just searched on “trails” in the 2001. There are definitely environmental groups that see all Roadless as potentially Wilderness if certain users could be removed, but I don’t think that’s FS policy. The fact that the litigants in the court case probably feel that way might have some sway.

    • Patrick, here’s one thing the CRR says in the response to comments:

      “Access and designations for motorized versus non-motorized recreation is a topic raised in comments, however, the final rule does not provide direction on where and when off highway
      vehicle use would be permissible and makes clear that travel planning-related actions should be
      addressed through travel management planning and individual forest plans.”

  4. Hi Sharon,

    Sending .pdf.
    I addressed this squarely in a brief I wrote for Dale Goble’s Natural Resource Law & Policy class. In Idaho the case on point is Jayne v. Sherman for those interested.

  5. In the Custer-Gallatin National Forest motorized trails exist in Roadless Areas. Not many, but they do exist. Some are singletrack only (motorcycle) and some are 50 inch wide (ATV). Yes there are several local groups that want Roadless to be defacto W, and those folks are anti bicycle and snowmobile as well. Sorry my reply isn’t about timber harvest.

    • It’s a tricky situation here in Colorado. As Sharon said, existing roads were supposed to be mapped out of the roadless areas when the CRR was passed. Yet in the Pike San Isabel travel management, we discovered at least one road where about half of it had been erroneously left off the MVUM and it extends pretty far into a roadless area. Then several other roads that had been deliberately cherry-stemmed into roadless areas are being proposed for closure specifically to reduce impacts on “roadless values”.

      So while the draft EIS clearly says that motorized trails are allowed in roadless areas, the actual route evaluations seem to be treating them as almost the same as wilderness areas. We are advocating that all of those be converted to full size motorized trails instead.

      Sharon, thanks for the quote you posted. That should come in handy during the objection phase.

  6. I’d have to guess mountain pine beetle in lodgepole. That’s one of the reasons Colorado was not confident about using the 2001 Rule exception for “reduce the risk of uncharacteristic wildfire effects, within the range of variability that would be expected to occur under natural disturbance regimes of the current climatic period” because LPP tends to grow old, get hit by pine beetles and then die and burn, and perhaps that would be “characteristic”. I’m sure federal courts have better things to do than attempting to parse that out.

  7. where to begin…? for starters, original wording was intended to provide a little relief, where essential, from prohibition of COMMERCIAL LOGGING. Roadless areas were intended to remain in largely NATURAL condition, thus the use of terms like “uncharacteristic” and “natural disturbance”. And there is a distinction between cutting and removal. I suspect the house pictured above is NOT adjacent to a roadless area. WUI should remain a priority for limited funds associated with reducing fire risk through cutting trees. Ponderosa pine and LPP are very different in relation to this provision and exemptions should reflect this reality, but should remain somewhat difficult to justify in keeping roadless character of high priority.


Leave a Comment