Lawsuit Challenges Pipeline Road Approved in Roadless Forests
DENVER, Colorado, March 14, 2008 (ENS) - In a lawsuit that could serve as a national test case to interpret the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, a coalition of conservation groups is challenging approval of a natural gas pipeline that would require construction of more than eight miles of new roads in protected roadless areas.

Construction of the pipeline by SG Interests I, Ltd. of Houston, Texas would include a 100 foot wide "construction corridor" for heavy trucks and equipment traffic, complete with a "travel lane" and "passing lane."

The 25-mile Bull Mountain pipeline would include more than eight miles of roads in three separate roadless areas within the Grand Mesa-Uncompahgre-Gunnison and White River national forests in western Colorado.

The 20-inch pipeline system would transport natural gas from production operations 21 miles northeast of Paonia, Colorado to the existing Divide Creek pipeline system, 10 miles south of Silt, Colorado for delivery into interstate natural gas pipeline systems.

The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, which approved the project, claim that these travel ways are not roads and thus the onstruction does not prohibit a nationwide ban on road building within pristine roadless areas.

If the agencies' decision is upheld, new roads could be allowed in close to 58.5 million acres of currently protected forestland.

"By playing word games and calling the road a 'temporary use area' or a 'construction zone,' the Forest Service is attempting to skirt the spirit and letter of the law to punch this project through," said Robin Cooley, attorney for Earthjustice, which is representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, filed last week in federal district court.

"This is a clear violation of the 2001 Roadless Rule and will set a precedent that could ignite a nationwide expansion of road building and development within roadless areas," Cooley said.

The 2001 Roadless Rule, issued in the final month of the Clinton administration, prohibits road construction in 58.5 million acres of pristine roadless lands in national forests across the United States and was supported by more than 97 percent of the 1.2 million people who commented on the rule.

Still, the Bush administration has made repeated efforts to undermine the Roadless Rule, most recently by enacting its own, watered-down version in 2005.

A federal court invalidated the Bush rule in 2006 after three states and 20 conservation organizations challenged its validity. The court simultaneously reinstated the original 2001 Roadless Rule.

"The Bush administration is flouting a court order and public mandate to protect the last undeveloped places in our national forests," said Paul Spitler, public lands director for the Center for Biological Diversity. "These areas belong to the American people, not special interests like energy companies."

It is not necessary to cut a 25.5 mile gash through public lands and roadless areas for a natural gas line when there are environmentally preferable alternative routes, the conservation groups say.

In October 2007, Wilderness Workshop and High Country Citizens Alliance urged the Forest Service to oppose construction of the natural gas line through two national forests and three inventoried roadless areas in the Clear Fork Divide.

The Clear Fork Divide connects the Grand and Battlement Mesas to the West Elk Mountains and the spine of the Rocky Mountains. The area provides important wildlife habitat and is a popular hunting ground each fall.

On November 16, 2007, the Forest Service issued a final Environmental Impact Statement, FEIS, that selected the route through the roadless areas.

While the FEIS analyzed production from 55-60 wells, the conservationists point out that the pipeline's 20-inch size has the gas transmission capacity to stimulate and accommodate up to 280 wells.

"Aside from the immediate impact on natural habitat and wildlife, this proposal will set a precedent that could ignite a nationwide expansion of road building and development within public lands that have been protected up until now," Cooley warned.

The proposed corridor also will create an easy path for illegal motor vehicle use, said Dan Morse, public lands director for High Country Citizens Alliance.

The groups prefer two longer but less destructive routes following existing roads and transmission lines. These routes "avoid roadless areas, minimize wildlife and habitat impacts and eliminate any chance of illegal motorized use of the pipeline corridor," Morse said.

Joining the suit in federal district court in Denver, Colorado are Pitkin County, the Wilderness Workshop, Western Colorado Congress, Western Slope Environmental Resource Council, High Country Citizens Alliance, and the Center for Biological Diversity.

"The Forest Service and BLM are getting their marching orders straight out of DC - full speed ahead with energy development with total disregard for cherished Western values - clean air, clean water, bountiful wildlife, and unrivaled hunting opportunities," said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the Wilderness Workshop, based in Carbondale, Colorado.

"Our natural heritage and Western lifestyle are being sacrificed on the altar of a wasteful and shortsighted energy policy," Shoemaker said. "After the boom goes bust, the foundation of Colorado's West Slope economies will be destroyed. What will we do then?"

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.