Bush Opens Remote Forests to Roads and Logging

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, May 5, 2005 (ENS) - The Bush administration today repealed a federal rule that banned road construction, logging and other development in some 58 million acres of remote and unspoiled public land.

The new rule gives individual states a much greater role in deciding the future of the remaining roadless areas of the national forests and immediately opens some 34.3 million acres to road construction.

New management plans would have to be written by the U.S. Forest Service for the other 24.2 million acres before the start of road construction and commercial activities.

State governors have 18 months to petition the U.S. Forest Service to lift or keep in place restrictions outlined by existing management plans. The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture will have the final word on whether the governors' petitions are accepted or rejected. kootenai

Montana's Kootenai National Forest - some 97 percent of roadless areas lie within a dozen Western states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. (Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service )
Bush administration officials defended their decision by pointing to the legal controversy created by the original roadless rule, which was put into effect in January 2001 during the final days of the Clinton administration.

That rule banned road construction within one third of the national forest land for commercial activities, but did allow new roads if needed to fight fires or to protect public health and safety.

Supporters of the Clinton rule say it provided vital protection for some of the nation's last remaining wild places and is one of the most important conservation efforts in recent times.

But several Western states, notably Idaho, as well as logging interests, view the rule as too broad and restrictive.

Nine lawsuits involving seven states have been filed challenging the Clinton rule.

U.S. Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey said the Bush administration concluded the 2001 rule "would face at best an uncertain legal future with the only certainty additional litigation." Tongass

In late 2003 the Bush administration rolled back roadless protections in the Tongass National Forest, a move that will logging and new roads in some 300,000 acres of the forest. (Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service)
Given the reaction of the conservation community it is likely the Bush administration's new policy will cause more confrontation - and probably more litigation - rather than the cooperation all sides say they desire.

National Environmental Trust President Philip Clapp said the rule represents the administration's "single biggest environmental giveaway to a major industry."

"This takes us straight back to the early 1990s, when the national forests were managed as nothing more than tree lots for the timber industry," Clapp said.

Rey cited a July 2003 decision by a Wyoming federal judge that overturned the Clinton rule - the court determined the rule illegally created wilderness areas.

"We didn't throw out the 2001 rule, the courts did," Rey said.

Critics say the administration is misleading the public and trying to preempt a court determination that could uphold the Clinton rule.

The U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals is currently hearing the appeal of a Wyoming court decision against the roadless rule by environmental groups, who presented arguments before the court on Wednesday and believe that precedent is on their side.

A 2001 injunction placed on the roadless rule by a federal judge in Idaho was reversed by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Rey

Critics say the Bush administration is too close to corporate interests - U.S. Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service, is a former timber industry lobbyist. (Photo courtesy USDA)

"The Bush administration is, yet again, doing its hardest to ignore over four million public comments in support of wild forest protection as well as an exceptionally strong ruling from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upholding the legality of the rule," said Sean Cosgrove, a forest policy analyst with the Sierra Club.

Rey downplayed the overwhelming number of comments that opposed repeal of the Clinton rule and said environmentalists espouse "Kafkaesque predictions of doom" about the impact of the Bush policy.

"Critics predicted that our first look at this issue over four years ago would pave the way for increased mining and logging - that hasn't happened," Rey told reporters. "The reality on the ground tomorrow will be the same as it was yesterday."

The new regulation will boost cooperation among stakeholders and ensure decisions about protecting the national forests are made with the best available information, Rey said, and sets up a national advisory committee to help with implementation.

The rule "will protect roadless values," he added. "Nothing compels the states to do anything they don't want to do." Idaho

Idaho is home to more than 9.3 million acres of inventoried roadless acres within the national forests, including this mountainous roadless area in the Boise National Forest. (Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service)

Critics raise concerns about the potential for patchwork oversight of the national forests that extend into more than one state and the cost to federal and state governments of implementing the new Bush rule.

There are 39 states with inventoried roadless areas on national forest lands within their boundaries - each could potentially require a different rule governing the management of roadless areas.

States will also have to find the money to inventory these areas in order to petition the federal government.

The U.S. Forest Service already faces a maintenance backlog of some $10 billion for its 380,000 mile network of forest roads and has a long history of missing deadlines to review and revise forest management plans.

"The first rule of fiscal responsibility is to stop digging when you're in a hole," said Jim DiPeso of Republicans for Environmental Protection. "Instead, a supposedly conservative administration wants to hand the Forest Service a bigger shovel."