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Roadless Rules Touch Nerve Among Readers

Tue July 12, 2005 - National Edition
Pete Sigmund



In a recent Construction Equipment Guide story (“Rage Over New Roadless Rules”), the Sierra Club and other environmental groups criticized the Bush Administration’s new rule allowing states to propose plans on managing 58.5-million acres designated as “roadless” areas of national forests.

The criticism, which said the new rule “effectively ends protection for these forests,” touched a raw nerve among some readers. It brought quick rebuttals from a contractor and a retired Forest Service fishery biologist, who said areas will still be protected, and who support more, and better, “local” management.

David Dodd, managing member of Enviro Land Management LLC (ELM), a forestry vegetation management company in Grand Junction, CO, said environmental groups, by eliminating logging in New Mexico and Colorado national forests in the early 1990s, also stopped the thinning of these forests, which were then hit by devastating fires in 2001 and 2002.

“A firefighter who was out of work actually lit the match to start a fire that burned over one million acres in Arizona in 2002,” Dodd said, “but the real culprit was the environmental community who opposed managing the forest. If you thin a forest correctly, it won’t carry the fire. It costs $10,000 an acre on up to fight a fire, but only $500 an acre to treat the area, as ELM does, against fires by firebreaks and other steps. You can manage a forest. One of our favorite sayings is ’A tree is not immortal, but a forest can be.’ You just can’t let it go and let nature take its course.”

Dodd said a forest fire in New Mexico, uncontrollable because vegetation was too thick, burned half a million acres in 1999. It cost taxpayers $1 billion and cleanup was still going on this year.

The new roadless rule, announced on May 5, 2005, replaces the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, originally proposed by the Clinton Administration, which had restricted roadbuilding and “resource extraction” on the 58.5-million acres. The issue has drawn 4.2-million public comments, 10 times more than any other federal rule in history.

Improper Management?

Was Dodd saying that, under the current system, we are not properly managing our forests?

“Absolutely,” Dodd replied. “If you interview Forest Service people on the ground, they have been so frustrated over the years, especially during the Clinton Administration, because their hands were tied; they couldn’t do anything. They won’t speak out because it’s not their place and they probably enjoy their jobs, but I think they are all pretty much applauding the attitude of the Bush Administration of managing the forests.”

The Guy Who Saved Smokey the Bear

As an example of proper management, Dodd cited Harlow Yeager, of Prescott, AZ, “He’s the guy who, as a Forest Service employee, saved Smokey the Bear in New Mexico in 1950. He was fighting a fire with Game and Fish people. They came around a burned area and there was this little bear in a tree. Game and Fish wanted to let nature take its course, and told him, ’Don’t you touch that bear; if you do we’re going to arrest you.’ In spite of that, he took down the bear and brought him to Albuquerque. Then Smokey was taken to Washington, D.C., where the Smokey the Bear program then started. Harlow’s definition of conservation was ’the greatest amount of good, for the greatest amount of people, for the greatest amount of time.’ That’s what it should be. Logging can be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

Is Protection Adequate?

The new Roadless Rule gives governors 18 months to petition the Department of Agriculture (and its Forest Service) on how they propose to manage and conserve roadless areas of national forests in their states. The Sierra Club and other environmental groups told CEG that this ends all protection for these forests and will lead to more logging, mining and drilling.

Dodd asserted, in response, “First of all, you don’t have to build roads to go in and manage these areas. You don’t have to build roads, but they make it easier to fight fires and manage the forests. I very much applaud the opportunity for governors to take control of what goes on in their states.”

What is to protect the roadless areas against people who want to go in and make money by logging or other activity?

“That’s always been the rap. If you make money, you’re greedy. Opponents don’t view it [cutting and removing trees] as part of the solution but as part of the problem. They don’t view thinning a forest as positive. People don’t look at the whole picture, which is that you’re dealing with a commodity in forestry and logging.

“The mills will try to buy logs as cheaply as possible to make as much money as possible. That’s the American Way. They contract out their logging to independent contractors. It isn’t that lucrative for these contractors to go out and cut and do a really good cleanup job. That’s where the issues come in for the environmental community, and I’m one of them.

“I think it should look good. I think we should be proud of our forests. In the Scandinavian countries, you actually need a college degree to even work in a forest.”

So, to echo the Sierra Club’s concerns, how do you protect against abuse?

“It’s not exactly abuse; it’s that contractors will be paid to do logging, but there’s not enough money in there,” replied Dodd. “If it’s an acceptable practice, they’ll leave what we call slash, where they leave slash piles around. It’s those issues that could use some attention. As a contractor, we get paid to go out and take care of that for the government or private people.”

Not a Pretty Picture

Dodd said that, without proper thinning, “soon you have a whole bunch of dying trees, susceptible to bug infestation and drought, instead of healthy trees.”

“Logging is no longer a viable option for thinning forests because the infrastructure for milling and treatment has been destroyed,” he said. “Logging is not an option unless you can make something out of it and protect your investment. Our company is mulching trees to thin them rather than pay to dispose of them in a landfill. You really have to manage to maintain a healthy forest.

“The government is trying to do this with such steps as a stewardship program giving people 10 years to manage a forest correctly. It’s also trying to find ways to use small wood because there’s an oversupply of forest products you can’t do anything with.”

Dodd has a 550-acre ranch, with lodgepole and spruce trees, at 10,000 ft. near Pitkin, CO. He found that many 70-year-old trees had a condition called “butt rot” for the first 10 or 15 ft. from the ground, and cut them.

“Environmental groups have problems with cutting larger trees, but we want to have younger, healthier trees, for our children, instead of older, dying ones,” he said. “All public lands really belong to us. If we personally owned the forests, wouldn’t we protect them from beetle infestations and fires rather than let them go?”

Questions Legality

Monte E. Seehorn, a retired Forest Service wildlife biologist and fishery scientist, also is at odds with the views expressed by environmental groups in the CEG feature, and with the original roadless rule proposed by the Clinton Administration.

“I don’t understand how the [roadless rule] initiative could even be legal,” said Seehorn, who worked for the U.S. Forest Service for 38 years before retiring in 1994 and becoming a consultant. “It was formed illegally. A congressional subcommittee [House Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health, ’An Analytical Review of the Development of the President’s Roadless Area Initiative’] found in 2000 that the Forest Service broke two laws by communicating with only one special interest group, environmentalists, in developing the initiative [in the late 1990s], and by not including this in the public record.”

Asked about the Bush Administration’s new rule, which provides for input from governors of each state, Seehorn replied, “If you get down to the local level, site-specific management is always better than following a broad general guideline; therefore each individual governor’s input would be valuable in management direction for individual national forests. One thing doesn’t fit all situations when you get down to a particular national forest.”

Wants Access

Seehorn feels that designating roadless areas defeats the objective of protecting wildlife and providing public recreation.

“If hunting, fishing, bird-watching, hiking, sightseeing, camping, picnicking and other outdoor activities in the national forests are important to you, roadless designation will be our loss,” he declared.

“Areas designated as roadless will inevitably go to wilderness,” he told CEG. “If you look in the Forest Service handbook, they must meet the same criteria as wilderness areas. As far as I’m concerned, we don’t need any more wilderness in the Appalachian National Forest.

“There are already about 40 million acres of wilderness area designated in national forests, along with substantial acreage of other specially designated areas such as scenic areas, natural areas and vistas that are off-limits to most management activities. Therefore we don’t need more wilderness or unmanaged areas.

“Most people don’t realize that, without access, you can’t manage for fish and wildlife. The Sierra Club uses wildlife and recreation as justification for roadless areas when it should be just the opposite. From a wildlife standpoint, we need to manage and have access and, from a recreation standpoint, you can’t have any kind of developed recreation without roads. People don’t walk way back in the woods.

“I’ve worked most of my life in the Southern Appalachians. You can’t get through rhododendron hells and places like that because it’s too thick.

“We don’t need more public driving roads in the national forests. We do, however, need flexibility to use temporary logging roads and gated access roads that serve a dual purpose of management access and as linear wildlife openings. From a recreational standpoint, there can be very little use of national forests by the public unless you have some form of road.

“For the most part, the Forest Service has no plans, and previously had no plans, for developing road systems in the proposed roadless areas.”

Important Distinction

Seehorn said it’s important to distinguish between national forests and national parks.

“The basic Park Service mandate is to preserve, restore and maintain natural conditions,” he pointed out. “Although this may be one consideration in national forest management, the Forest Service is still supposed to be operating under a multiple use mandate, including providing the public with a continuous and sustainable supply of wood products.”

Believes Logging Is Important

Seehorn said the biggest need in U.S. forests at present is “early successional habitat” (natural growth and wildlife activity after logging), which he says isn’t occurring because logging has generally stopped in national forests.

“We have this need because the preservation groups have stopped timber activities,” he said. “Due to lack of an active timber program, the Chattahoochee and other Appalachian forests are rapidly losing early successional habitat necessary for maintenance of many game and non-game species of wildlife.”

Lack of logging, he added, also is cutting Forest Service revenue, “That [little or no logging] is why the Forest Service doesn’t have money to do anything, and, quite frankly, is doing very little. The Forest Service has already placed over 50 percent of the Appalachian National Forests in the ’unsuitable for timber purposes’ category. Sales initiated in such areas will be much more susceptible to litigation by preservation groups. A judge will rule that it’s still a timber sale, even if it’s for other purposes like wildlife preservation.

“Enforcing a roadless rule will take even more areas out of the possibility for management. A timber-harvesting program is critical in providing the vegetative diversity required by a broad range of wildlife game and non-game species.

“In addition, the money generated by the sales will provide significant support to the other forest programs, including maintaining and upgrading existing roads.

“What most people don’t understand is the importance of the timber-harvesting program to all aspects of national forest management. Most national forests in the Southeast, and especially the Appalachian forests, range from no timber program at all to significantly reduced [timber harvesting] programs.

“These programs provided fiscal support for all other programs in the national forests. They paid for wildlife and fishery habitat improvements, administrative overhead salaries, specialist salaries [including biologists, hydrologists, and geologists], road construction and maintenance, and funds to county governments [25 percent of all funds generated].

“Twenty or so years ago, the Forest Service turned more money into the treasury than it spent, and provided far more service to the public through the timber program. Without the timber program, your tax dollars are paying for the few services you get, including guaranteed tax money to the counties, compliments of the Clinton Administration and lobbying efforts of the environmental groups.”

Would Areas Be Developed?

Seehorn added that the Sierra Club “makes it sound life the Forest Service is going to develop these areas into some kind of intensive development.”

“Actually, the Forest Service has no plans to develop the proposed roadless areas, other than minimal use of temporary logging or administrative management roads,” he said.

“The Sierra Club’s charges that they will be intensively developed is nothing more than a smokescreen to help achieve their own agenda of locking up land to public use. Roads are necessary to allow use of the national forests by the public, and, where managed properly, do little if any damage to resources.

“The Blue Ridge Parkway is located in practically every drainage in the Southern Appalachians, and supports the heaviest use of any national park; yet I’m not aware of any significant damage that it’s done to either wildlife or fish. Many of our best trout streams have roads paralleling them with no apparent resource damage.”

What about the assertion by the Heritage Forests Campaign (in the article) that the new rule “effectively ends all protection for these [national] forests.”

“What I want to know is what is roadless protecting these areas from,” Seehorn responded. “Nothing is going to hurt them. I worked as a regional fisheries biologist for most of my career with the Forest Service. From Day One, they [the Forest Service] provided high quality water, timber products, and a whole lot better wildlife and recreation program, when they had the most active timber program 25 or 30 years ago.”

What About Mining Activity in Forests?

“They can’t take mineral rights away, no matter what you do either way,” Seehorn said, “but I can guarantee that the Forest Service doesn’t have plans for any of that. Let’s take the Appalachians. They haven’t done this [mining in forests] in the past. Most of the mining stuff is on private land. The Forest Service would do some limited timber harvesting, which we need in the worst sort of way.

“I’ve been involved in management of national forests in all 14 Southeastern states from 1966 to the present, mostly in the Appalachians because that’s where most of the controversy was; I’d be glad to take anybody on about the impact of roads on wildlife or fisheries.” CEG