Bipartisan Bill Would Safeguard America's Roadless Forests

WASHINGTON, DC, May 25, 2007 (ENS) - Bills to enshrine the protection of 58.5 million acres of roadless national forests in law were re-introduced in the U.S. House and Senate on Thursday with bipartisan support and the backing of conservation groups.

These roadless areas in 38 states are now at risk of road construction, commercial logging, oil and gas drilling and mining exploration, despite a rule passed in the final days of the Clinton administration that protected them. The Bush administration repealed the rule in 2005 and is fighting a court decision overturning the repeal.

Two million of those roadless acres lie in the national forests of Washington state, and it is two Washington Democrats - Congressman Jay Inslee and Senator Maria Cantwell - who are leading the legislative push to safeguard the roadless areas.
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Washington state's Granite Mountain Roadless Area is inhabited by lynx, wolf and grizzly bears and contains the headwaters for many salmon bearing streams. (Photo courtesy Pacific Biodiversity Institute)
"Roadless areas make up more than 20 percent of national forest land here in Washington state," said Cantwell, a member of the Senate Natural Resources Committee.

"It's irresponsible and shortsighted to let logging, road-building, and mining degrade these untouched forests. With so few truly wild and pristine public lands left in our country, its time to strike a responsible balance and make the roadless rule law," she said.

"These pristine forests are national treasures that should belong to all Americans, not special interests," said Inslee, who has served on the House Natural Resources Committee since 1999. "That's why it doesn't surprise me that over 90 percent of public comments have been in support of the roadless rule."

Inslee's bill has over 140 House cosponsors; Cantwell's bill is cosponsored by Senator John Warner, a Virginia Republican.

"This bill will preserve some of the most pristine forests of the Southern Appalachians for future generations, and will save taxpayers money as well," said Warner.

House cosponsor Congressman Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, said, "By protecting these areas, we can ensure these pristine forests provide sources of public drinking water, undisturbed habitats for fish and wildlife, and barriers against invasive plant and animal species."

"This legislation represents a balance between environmental and economic concerns," said Shays. "We simply will not have a world to live in if we continue our neglectful ways."

The bill also helps address the fiscal challenge posed by the $8.6 billion maintenance and reconstruction backlog on the 386,000 miles of existing U.S. Forest Service roads. More roads, in addition to degrading sensitive lands, would only add to this backlog, the bill's sponsors say.

The Roadless Area Conservation Act is endorsed by The Wildlife Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, American Lands Alliance, Sierra Club, U.S. Public Interest Research Groups, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, Audubon Society, National Environmental Trust and the Heritage Forests Campaign, among others.

"We applaud these members for their leadership in protecting our last wild forests," said Robert Vandermark, director of the Heritage Forests Campaign. "With the administration determined to undermine the Roadless Area Conservation Rule and placing our last pristine forests at risk, Congressional action to stop these efforts could not be more timely."
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Roadless area on a national forest in Southern Appalachia (Photo courtesy Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition)
In May 2005, the Bush administration repealed the Roadless Area Conservation Rule that was approved in January 2001 after years of scientific study, more than 600 public hearings across the country, and 1.6 million official public comments, most in favor of strong protections for the roadless areas.

Instead, the Bush administration established a system that requires state governors to petition the Secretary of Agriculture to protect roadless areas on national forests within each state.

A recent decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found the Bush administration's repeal of the roadless rule illegal and reinstated the 2001 rule as the law of the land.

But the Bush administration, along with the timber industry, filed an appeal challenging this judgment on April 9, 2007.

Despite the legal battle, the petition process is moving forward in some states including Idaho, where the state has begun an environmental analysis covering 9.3 million acres of roadless areas across Idaho’s national forests.

Governor Butch Otter favors the petition process. "This brings us another small step closer to fulfilling the promise of a meaningful role for local folks in determining the long-term management of these public lands," Governor Otter said in April. "I hope every Idahoan who can do so takes the opportunity to weigh in on this plan so our state’s voice is heard."

Conservationists point out that the National Forest System already contains over 380,000 miles of roads and 60,000 miles of unmapped logging roads, enough to circle the Earth 17 times.

Despite the ongoing court battle, the Bush administration is authorizing logging of roadless national forests that were included in the 2001 inventory of lands to be protected.

On August 7, 2006, the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest in Oregon started logging in a roadless area that was protected under the 2001 roadless rule.

"The Bush administration continues to promote dangerous activities in roadless areas," said US PIRG Forests Advocate Christy Goldfuss. "Fortunately, the administration may not get the last word. The American people have called for protections for our last wild places, the courts have upheld those protections, and now Congress wants to make those protections permanent."

While protecting the last one-third of America's national forests from most logging and road-building, the Roadless Area Conservation Act does allow new roads to be constructed in order to fight fires and to ensure public health and safety.

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Roadless area on California's Sequoia National Forest (Photo courtesy California Wild Heritage Campaign)
"Roadless forests are vital to maintaining viable populations of wildlife, especially large carnivores such as wolves and grizzly bears. These forests, where much of our remaining old growth is found, also play an important role in the fight against global warming by removing huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere," said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife.

America's roadless forests help to define the American identity, says Franz Matzner, forest and public land advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC.

"Americans have always been tied to their land, and our natural heritage is deeply ingrained in our national character. People see the growing impact of development, commercialization and global warming, and they want to know there's more out there than another sub-division or concrete parking lot," she said.

Sixty million Americans rely on drinking water from the roadless areas this bill would protect, the NRDC estimates. In addition, conservationists point out that the fishing, hunting, and scenic landscapes these forests provide generate millions of dollars for the residents of nearby communities.

NRDC's wildlife expert Louisa Willcox said, "Without the protection afforded to grizzly bears, salmon, wolves, and the entire forest ecosystem by this legislation, people in these communities stand to lose valuable sources of income and all Americans stand to lose innumerable natural resources."