Colorado Should Follow Alaska's Precedent in Protecting Roadless Lands

03/15/2011 03:37 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The recent ruling to end the Tongass National Forest exemption from the Roadless Rule is a success story that should give Coloradans hope. There is no doubt that Colorado's roadless areas hang in the balance, and with them the Colorado way of life, a $10 billion annual outdoor recreation economy, and some of the most iconic landscapes in the country.

These lands need strong protection, and should maintain the high standard of protection established in the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule. The proposed Colorado Roadless Rule fails to meet this standard. The Forest Service is now reviewing the state's proposal and needs to step up to give these lands the protection they deserve.

Despite having spent most of the last seven years traveling across North America, the six weeks we spent last summer exploring Colorado's Roadless Areas felt like we were in a whole new world.

Paddling the Animas River, climbing in Independence Pass, hiking Mt. Elbert and mountain biking Hermosa Creek, Crested Butte, Kenosha Pass and the Monarch Crest Trail provided us with a powerful perspective on what hangs in the balance with the proposed Colorado Roadless Rule.

Hiking Mt. Elbert, the highest peak in Colorado and second highest in the continental United States at 14,434 feet, we breathed in the rarified air on the summit and looked to the west into the heart of San Isabel National Forest and the Frying Pan Wilderness.

The dramatic interplay between alpine and sub-alpine environments, jagged, lichen-covered ridges, expansive pine forests, crystal blue hanging lakes, and lush meadows of wildflowers extended into the horizon. The view was one of the most incredible we had ever seen.

Looking to the south into Granite Valley, Twin Lakes sparkled in the sun, the historic town of Leadville sat nestled in the far hills, and a thin plume of smoke rose from the American Smelting and Refining Company complex. The plume hinted at the town's complex history of mining and resource extraction that has left Leadville with one of the most polluted watersheds in the country.

The same forces that shaped the amazing landscape we were looking at also created the underlying geology of minerals, metals, oils and gasses that Colorado was founded on and that made our hike possible, from the cameras we held in our hands to the fuel we used to drive to the trailhead.

Riding the 32-mile Monarch Crest Trail, we followed the spine of the continental divide at 12,000 feet before plunging into Salida Valley. Hugging the ridgeline, weaving through scree fields, pine forests and golden meadows, the trail provided some of the most scenic vistas in the country. Looking back towards Monarch Pass, however, the operations of the Monarch Mine come into view and networks of logging roads and clear cuts dot the landscape.

Stopping for lunch near Marshall Pass we basked in the sun and the wildflowers and were drawn to the glint of multi-colored chert flakes amid the lupine and bunch grass. The size, shape and pattern of the flakes were evidence of a lithic scatter, where native peoples would have sat making stone tools.

It was a stark reminder of our long history of reliance on the resources in the landscapes and the impact that the extraction of these resources leaves behind. The small chips of rock lay as they fell probably a few hundred years ago. It was hard to imagine what the landscape would have looked like back then and even harder to imagine what the landscape will look like in the future. Much of it depends on the fate of the proposed Colorado Roadless Rule. Conservation groups united in Alaska to protect the Tongass National Forest; it's now Colorado's turn to protect their backcountry lands.