Moffat Co., wilderness groups disagree about maintaining area roads

— By asserting its right to maintain roads on federal land, the Moffat County Board of Commissioners has rekindled wilderness-proposal conflicts in Vermillion Basin.

Last Friday, the board adopted a resolution to maintain a scattering of roads on 300,000 acres of federal land to protect recreational, agricultural and mining activities.

The commissioners pointed to a statute written in 1866 to justify their resolution.

"We want to maintain that for the future of Moffat County," Moffat County Commissioner Marianna Raftopoulos said.

However, representatives of conservation groups working to designate some of those federal lands as wilderness say the decision was meant to derail their efforts.

"This is about the county commissioners and their personal vendetta against wilderness," said Jennifer Seidenberg, a Steamboat Springs-based representative of the Colorado Wilderness Network.

Many of the roads the commissioners identified in last Friday's decisions are in the Vermillion Basin, she said. Many are rough two-track roads that conservationists believe aren't in use and have minimal purpose. Maintaining them could hurt the wilderness quality of Vermillion Basin.

Seidenberg is focused on obtaining wilderness status for several parcels of public land in Moffat County. Wilderness designation would thwart oil and gas exploration and add other land-use restrictions.

Chief among those parcels is the 88,000-acre Vermillion Basin west of Craig, which was part of a congressional bill to put 1.6 million acres of federal land under wilderness protection. The bill was introduced in the Colorado Legislature last year but was not passed.

The Steamboat Springs City Council formed a resolution in support of the proposal, which angered the Moffat County commissioners. The city eventually backed down from its support of the proposal.

However, the Vermillion Basin issue is still alive. In June 2001, the Bureau of Land Management recognized that about 77,000 acres of Vermillion Basin has wilderness characteristics. That sparked the agency to begin amending its management plan for the area. That amendment, which could include protecting the wilderness quality of the area, is not completed. It could be affected by the Moffat County Board of Commissioners' pending "Landscape Trust" proposal to the federal government, which would provide more local control over management of federal lands.

"We have stated in our land-use plan that we haven't wanted wilderness area. But that does not say that we don't want that area to have wilderness characteristics," Raftopoulos said.

Above and beyond anything else, Moffat County commissioners want to protect oil, gas, coal and gravel mining. That could be done with a minimal impact to the environment, Raftopoulos said.

All of the top 10 taxpayers in Moffat County are connected to mining. They make up 68 percent of the county's tax revenue, and more than half of that revenue goes to public schools, she said.

In all, mining on federal land in Moffat County -- most of which is for oil and gas -- was worth $4.9 million in tax revenue in 2001.

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