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Gov. Seeks to Protect Roadless Forests

By Tania Soussan
Journal Staff Writer
    Gov. Bill Richardson on Wednesday became the first Western governor to petition the Bush administration for protection of all roadless national forest land in the state.
    Richardson also asked the federal government to permanently protect northern New Mexico's Valle Vidal from future road building.
    "I'm going to fight to protect 1.7 million acres of pristine New Mexico land," he said in a national telephone news conference. "New Mexico's roadless areas promote the health of rivers and streams. Roadless areas support significant and complex wildlife communities and ... create unique valuable recreational opportunities."
    Richardson has been a vocal critic of President Bush's decision to replace a Clinton-era rule protecting all roadless forest land with a state-by-state petition process.
    Richardson and Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, said Wednesday that the federal government unfairly denied New Mexico any financial help to prepare its petition.
    "The Bush administration has politicized this process to an incredible degree by funding only governors of their own party," Clapp said.
    Richardson said New Mexico was told it would not get any money because the state joined a lawsuit challenging the federal policy. The state spent $50,000 to prepare the petition.
    Most of the 1.6 million acres of inventoried roadless forest land in New Mexico is protected from road-building— at least temporarily— in individual forest plans. But 351,000 acres are open to new roads, according to a state Game and Fish Department report released Wednesday.
    The 101,000-acre Valle Vidal, where the Forest Service is considering allowing coal-bed methane development, also is open to new road building. That area is home to the state's largest elk herd and top-quality streams, Richardson said.
    Roadless areas support healthy watersheds and ecosystems, are less vulnerable to severe wildfires and have less wildlife poaching, according to the state's petition.
    In addition, the Forest Service already has a $37.7 million yearly road maintenance backlog in New Mexico, according to the Game and Fish report.
    The petition calls for a permanent ban on new roads and most commercial timber harvest.
    However, current access to roadless areas wouldn't change.
    "This proposal that I put forth will not close existing roads and does not affect the ability of New Mexicans to use off-road vehicles and fight fires," Richardson said.
    Clapp and other national conservation leaders praised Richardson's action and said it could be a model for other states.