Battle Lines Drawn Over New Roadless Rules

Mon June 13, 2005 - National Edition
Pete Sigmund

As the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) observes its 100th anniversary this year, environmental groups are locking horns with the Bush Administration over an issue that has drawn 4.2-million public comments: how to protect 58.5-million acres of roadless areas in U.S. national forests.

One of the questions is how much logging, drilling, roadbuilding and other commercial activity will take place under a new federal rule that was announced in early May.

Both sides say they want to protect the areas but are otherwise sharply opposed about the effects of the rule.

Replaces 2001 Rule

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced on May 5, 2005, that it had adopted a “final rule” replacing the Jan. 12, 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule — originally proposed by the Clinton Administration — which restricted roadbuilding and “resource extraction” on these federal lands.

The new rule was announced at a press teleconference by Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, ending years of speculation over the fate of the 2001 policy.

In a letter to governors, Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns said the new rule “offers a unique opportunity for us to work together in a constructive way to develop sound forest policy.” He said governors can petition the department over 18 months (beginning May 13) with proposed regulations on how they wish to manage and conserve inventoried roadless areas in their states and noted that he would establish a national advisory committee to help implement the new approach.

The committee could review the petitions for 90 days and the Forest Service (an agency of the Department of Agriculture) would have six months to issue a rule for that state.

The original 2001 Roadless Rule has been the subject of nine lawsuits in federal district courts. Injunctions have prevented it from being implemented.

Environmental Groups Respond Fiercely

Environmental groups are up in arms.

The Heritage Forests Campaign (HFC) in Washington, D.C., said the new rule “effectively ends all protection for these forests” and “will lead to logging, mining and oil drilling in an ever-shrinking portion of national forests that remain wild and pristine.”

HFC said there are now approximately 440,000 mi. of roads in national forests, more than half of which are already open to logging, mining and drilling. It said the (2001) rule “was intended to preserve the last third of undeveloped forests as a home for wildlife, a haven for recreation, and a heritage for future generations.”

“The Administration plans to replace the rule with a meaningless process,” it added. “The day this proposal takes effect, millions of acres of our last wild forests will be immediately at risk.”

A news release from the Sierra Club, the nation’s largest environmental organization with 750,000 members, said, “Since taking office, the Bush Administration has opened up millions of acres of our national forests to increased logging, roadbuilding and other destructive development … (and) has now launched its assault on a popular rule designed to protect America’s last remaining wild forests.”

The governors of Maine, Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Mexico had written President Bush asking him to uphold the 2001 rule.

Forest Service Defends Process

Joseph Walsh, a spokesperson of the Forest Service, responded, “It’s a hollow argument that the new rule ends all protection for national forests because there hasn’t been an official regulation protecting national forests from logging and other commercial interests. After the Clinton Administration proposed the roadless rule in 2001, it was enjoined by the courts on March 13, 2001. This was followed by a permanent injunction on July 3, 2001, and the rule has been in the courts ever since.”

Walsh said the Forest Service “has been very careful in protecting the land as stewards for the American people, who have entrusted us to protect national forests and national grasslands, and that’s what we do.

“I know that everyone is looking out for the best interests of our national forests, nobody more than we are, but I think we have to be honest in what is involved,” Walsh told Construction Equipment Guide (CEG).

“I think history speaks for itself. Nothing has been developed since 2001. Dale Bosworth, chief of the USDA Forest Service, has gone on record that he values the roadless areas and doesn’t believe more roads should be constructed in roadless areas. In fact, he’s said that a lot of existing roads in national forests should be restored to the natural landscape that existed before the roads were built.”

Asked for President Bush’s outlook on the controversy, Walsh said, “I can’t speak for President Bush. You’ll have to ask the White House.”

How Much Development?

Amid this controversy, how much logging, mining or drilling can actually take place?

“The Forest Service plans for each forest dictate that,” Walsh said. “Roadless areas are included in all forest plans. People can’t just walk into a national forest and do what they want to do. The Forest Service determines where activities take place. We have a National Fire Plan, for instance, targeting certain areas for removal of underbrush and things like that.”

Walsh said contracts are put out for bid on many projects under existing guidelines.

“Based on what I’ve told you, I don’t think anybody could construe that a lot of roadbuilding will be going on or that there will be a big market for roadbuilding equipment,” he said. “Drilling would likewise go by what the forest plan dictates. People would have to go through the process.”

Record Comments From Public

After the 2001 “Roadless Rule” was announced, the Forest Service held more than 600 public meetings and hearings on each national forest and in each of its regions, receiving the record 4.2-million responses, 10 times more than any other federal rule in history.

According to the Agriculture Department, “Never before have the American people so actively participated in helping to decide how their public lands should be managed.”

Polls showed that 71 percent of people in the Northeast, 69 percent in the Midwest, 65 percent in the South and 64 percent in the West supported the rule.

Myke Bybee, the Sierra Club’s national conservation organizer, told CEG that “the Administration is asking for another round of comments but will make the decisions regardless.”

Where They Are

Thirty-eight states and Puerto Rico have inventoried roadless areas on National Forest System lands within their boundaries. However, 56.6-million acres, or 97 percent of inventoried areas, are within 12 states. These are Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

Road construction and reconstruction is now allowed in 34.3 million acres of this land and prohibited in 24.2 million acres.

The 58.5-million roadless acres are 31 percent of the Forest Service landbase and 2 percent of the total U.S. landbase.

Roadbuilding has been allowed in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, in the area of Juneau in Southeast Alaska, since 2003 under a temporary exemption from the roadless rule. Tongass is the largest national forest.

The Forest Service is responsible for a total of 192 million acres of national forests and grasslands. Established in 1905, it has identified loss of open space as one of four threats to the health of the nation’s forests and grasslands, declaring that more than 21.8-million acres of open space have been lost to development between 1982 and 1997 — approximately 4,000 acres a day or three acres a minute. Approximately 10.3-million acres of the lost space were in forests.

The other three threats are fire, invasive species, and unmanaged recreation.

The Forest Service currently has a $10-billion maintenance backlog on its roads.

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