Protecting roadless lands … or “Keep it like it is”

Rio Grande National Forest, Colorado

In 2001, anglers and hunters all across America received perhaps their greatest gift since the Wilderness Act of 1964. The incredibly progressive–and, at least these days, infamous–Roadless Rule was officially put in place by the U. S. Department of Agriculture. Say what you will about wilderness lands and roadless backcountry–if you’re a sportsman who understands that very real connection between intact habitat and hunting and fishing opportunity, you were among the rule’s greatest beneficiaries.

Because of what it does–it essentially prohibits the construction of new roads in inventoried “roadless areas” across about 58 million acres of public land within the U.S. Forest Service system–quality habitat has remained largely untracked and untrashed for over a decade. For sportsmen, particularly in states with large swaths of roadless land, like Idaho, for example, this has translated into the preservation of longer hunting seasons, the harvest of larger bulls and bucks from roadless hunting units and the protection of headwater streams where the bulk of our irreplaceable wild trout swim and where our wild salmon and steelhead spawn.

Simply put, the Roadless Rule of 2001 has served to protect our opportunity as anglers and hunters. We’re better off because of it, and our kids and grandkids have a 10-year head start on being able to enjoy the same top-notch backcountry hunting and fishing we enjoy today.

San Isabel National Forest, Colorado

And, today, the future of roadless lands in Colorado became a bit more secure. The U.S. Forest Service released its final environmental impact statement for the Colorado-specific roadless rule. This rule was developed independently after the Bush Administration declared in 2005 declared that states could craft their own rules independent of the 2001 Roadless Rule, which was, at the time, subject to a court battle. The 2001 Roadless Rule is now the law of the land, but Colorado started its own rule and was allowed to move forward with it, much like Idaho did when it passed its own very progressive roadless rule in 2007.

It can all get a bit complicated. But here’s the bottom line. Colorado’s new rule–while far from perfect–serves to keep the bulk of the states 4 million acres of backcountry fish and game habitat intact. It also includes special designations for roadless lands that are home to the state’s three subspecies of cutthroat trout, an inclusion Trout Unlimited is particularly proud of because we pushed hard to get it included.

The rule still needs some work, and our staff in Colorado, as well as staff and volunteers with Colorado Trout Unlimited, have vowed to work with the Forest Service to shore up some of the rule’s weaker language. But on the whole, the Forest Service is headed in the right direction, and anglers and hunters are, again, some of the most profound beneficiaries.

Our nation’s backcountry lands are irreplaceable. Once a road or a motorized trail is punched into the backcountry, the backcountry ceases to exist. Keeping quality fish and game habitat just as it is today–protecting the status quo, if you will–is often the best option when it comes to safeguarding our hunting and fishing heritage.

Think about it. Is “keeping it like is” such a bad thing? I don’t think so, and that’s what protecting our nation’s backcountry is all about.

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