Bush Pushes Aside Roadless Rules, Environmental Groups Press TN Gov. to Save Forests

Mon July 19, 2004 - Southeast Edition

WASHINGTON (AP) Governors would have to petition the federal government to block roadbuilding in remote areas of national forests under a Bush administration proposal to boost logging.

The administration said July 12 that it plans to overturn the Clinton-era rule that made nearly 60 million acres of national forests off-limits to road-building and logging.

Environmentalists say the proposed rule change, which was first outlined the first week of July in the Federal Register, would signal the end of the so-called “roadless rule,” which blocks road construction in nearly one-third of national forests as a way to prevent logging and other commercial activity in backcountry woods.

Without a national policy against road construction, forest management would revert back to individual forest plans that in many cases allow roads and other development on most of the 58 million acres now protected by the roadless rule, environmentalists say.

“Basically I think this proposal takes away protections on a national level” against roadbuilding and logging, Robert Vandermark, co-director of the Heritage Forest Campaign, said July 1. He and other environmentalists said it is unlikely that governors in pro-logging states would seek to keep the roadless rule in effect.

“I can’t imagine the governors of Montana or Wyoming or Colorado moving ahead with this thing and saying we want to petition to get in” to protect roadless areas, said Michael Francis, national forest director of The Wilderness Society.

Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, James L. Connaughton, told the Washington Post the administration is trying “to settle this once and for all on a state-by-state basis” so “we will be able to implement a very full and effective roadless conservation policy.”

Forest Service spokeswoman Heidi Valetkevitch stressed that the proposal was preliminary, but she called it an accurate statement of the administration’s intentions.

Officials had said last year they would develop a plan to allow governors to seek exemptions from the roadless rule. The latest plan turns that on its head by making governors petition the Agriculture Department if they want to maintain restrictions on timbering in their state.

“The roadless rule is struck down nationwide,” Valetkevitch said, referring to a 2003 ruling by a federal judge in Wyoming. “We are trying to create a rule that will pass legal muster.”

The Clinton administration adopted the rule during its final days in office in January 2001, calling it an important protection for backcountry forests. Environmentalists hailed that action, but the timber industry and some Republican lawmakers have criticized it as overly intrusive and even dangerous, saying it has left millions of acres exposed to catastrophic wildfire.

The three-year-old rule has twice been struck down by federal judges, most recently in the Wyoming case decided in July 2003. That case, which environmentalists have appealed, is one of several pending legal challenges, complicating efforts to issue a new plan.

Valetkevitch disputed a claim by environmentalists that requiring governors to petition for changes means the demise of the roadless rule.

“They could do a number of things –– make adjustments to it, add acres or change the boundaries,” she said, noting that some areas now counted as roadless actually have roads in them, although many are impassable.

The Federal Register notice calls for public comment to begin later this month and continue into September.

Environmental Groups Tell TN Gov.: Protect Forests

CHATTANOOGA (AP) Environmental groups want Gov. Phil Bredesen to protect roadless acreage in Tennessee after the Bush administration unveiled its plan.

One of those areas is 85,000 acres in Cherokee National Forest in East Tennessee. Under Bush’s plan, the only way to keep the area safe would be a petition from the governor before March 2006.

State forester Steve Scott said it’s too early to know what the state will do.

“We’re just getting the information and determining what it means for Tennessee,” Scott said. “They’ve got to flesh it all out, and it may take us some time to sort it all out.”

The 85,000 acres represents about 12 percent of Cherokee National Forest.

Jill Johnson, southeast field director of U.S. Public Interest Research Group, said her group and others will press Bredesen to petition for protection.

“The land isn’t owned by Governor Bredesen,” Johnson said. “It’s owned by all Tennesseans and, actually, all Americans.”