Localities Get Say in Managing Roadless National Forests
The United States Department of Agriculture has adopted a new roadless rule that opens 58.5 million acres of national forest land to the possibility of development. The new rule invites governors of the states with land in the balance to petition the Secretary of Agriculture and propose new state-specific, well-researched plans to manage the roadless areas within their borders. Most of the land covered by the rule is in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Colorado, California, Utah, Wyoming, Nevada, Washington, Oregon, New Mexico, and Arizona.
Local interests overlooked by the former rule will now receive adequate attention. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said the Department “is committed to working closely with the nation’s governors to meet the needs of our local communities while protecting and restoring the health and natural beauty of our national forests.”
Petitions must identify areas of the state to be deemed roadless and may also suggest ways to protect public health and safety, reduce wildfire risks to communities and critical wildlife habitat, maintain critical infrastructure (such as dams and utilities), and ensure that citizens have access to private property. If accepted by the Secretary of Agriculture, the petition will be forwarded to the Forest Service which will work with the state to develop a final ruling for its roadless areas.
The new rule “establishes a process of strong state and federal cooperation regarding the management of those areas,” said Idaho governor Dirk Kempthorne. “It will be a great tool for establishing long-lasting, community-based solutions that ensure a balance between responsible use and conservation.”
Though the process will allow for the consideration of local interests, the federal government will make the final decision. If proposals are rejected or if a governor chooses to not submit a petition, roadless areas not specifically protected by 10-year forest plans could be opened for development.
The earlier version of the rule, issued in January 2001 by then president Bill Clinton, has been challenged in nine lawsuits and was determined by the U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming to be in violation of both the National Environment Policy Act and the Wilderness Act of 1964. The decision has since been appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.
Members of the Bush administration are optimistic that the new rule will be less controversial and will spark fewer legal suits as it makes a conscious effort to incorporate individual states into the process of managing roadless areas.
“Our approach will foster better collaboration. We are committed to working closely with the nation’s governors so roadless conservation better meets the needs of all citizens,” said Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey. He explained that he disagrees with critics who have claimed the new rule will do nothing to reduce conflict. “We think more involvement by the states will result in a better outcome,” he said.
Pre-ruling involvement of key national organizations will hopefully reduce the legal problems this rule encounters. The rule calls for the development of the Roadless Area Conservation National Advisory Committee, which is designed to foster input from a wide variety of interests. It is to be comprised of 12 non-Forest Service members. The committee will review each state petition submitted to the Secretary of Agriculture and will give advice and recommendations regarding appropriate course of action within 90 days. The Secretary of Agriculture, however, is under no obligation to follow the advice of the committee.
“The Forest Service has worked hard to get to this point, and I think their diligence has paid off with a thoughtful, legal, and effective plan to protect our nation’s true roadless areas,” said W. Henson Moore, President and CEO of the American Forest and Paper Association.
Of course, not everyone shares this positive point of view. Opponents attack the rule asserting it will bring about the destruction of the national forests. Director of Heritage Forests Campaign Robert Vandermark referred to the new rule as a “leave no tree behind” policy that would increase logging, drilling and mining in “some of our last wild areas.” Though such exaggerations and scare tactics are what most commonly hit home with the public, they are inaccurate portrayals of the situation. In fact, the U.S Forest Service does not expect the new rule to have a significant impact on the amount of construction taking place in roadless areas.
However, opponents continue to assert that the government is ignoring the concerns and misconstrued wishes of the public to keep all of these areas roadless.
The national forests “are part of the unspoiled landscape so central to the American identity,” said William Meadows, president of the Wilderness Society. “Americans want to protect a portion of our most unspoiled places to create a legacy for our children; the government should too.”
And indeed Americans, as well as the Bush administration, should and do want to protect our national forests. But the fact of the matter is that the average citizen has at best a minimal knowledge of forest management and does not know how to protect these places. It follows then that it is more logical to allow the experts in the field and those whose livelihoods depend on the survival of the forests to determine the best method of care. To assert that loggers will go into our national forests and leave them treeless is absurd as they would restrict their own futures in doing so.
Also important and often forgotten or overlooked is the fact that the wood supplying the tremendous growth in our nation is coming from somewhere. American forests are some of the most productive in the world and, according to the American Forest Resource Council, are growing more than enough wood fiber to satisfy consumer demand here and abroad without compromising the protection of endangered species, water quality or “special” areas. However, our dependency on foreign imports for our domestic softwood lumber consumption increased to an estimated 46 % in 2004. Because our environmental regulations are not paralleled in other parts of the world, our domestic policies are in some case forcing the harvesting of less regulated forests of the world. The new rule seeks a balance between consumption and conservation that, if achieved, will prove beneficial to all.