Clinton Preserves Pristine Roadless National Forests
By Brian Hansen
WASHINGTON, DC, January 5, 2001 (ENS) - In a move that ranks among the most significant environmental policy initiatives in U.S. history, President Bill Clinton today announced the adoption of a comprehensive strategy that bans road construction and commercial logging on nearly 60 million acres of U.S. Forest Service land.
Speaking at a news conference at the National Arboretum in Washington, Clinton said that the new policy will insure that the pristine forest lands will remain "unspoiled by bulldozers, undisturbed by chain saws and untouched for our children."
"This is about preserving the land which the American people own, for the American people who are not around yet," Clinton said. "Not everyone can travel to the great palaces of the world, but everyone can enjoy the majesty of our great forests."
The new policy, which Clinton first proposed in 1999, will prohibit road building and commercial logging on 58.5 million acres of inventoried roadless areas throughout the national forest system.
The policy was drafted to reflect the environmental importance of roadless areas, which provide critical habitat for a vast array of fish and wildlife, including more than 200 plant and animal species protected or proposed for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Conservation groups were quick to hail the new roadless rule, which will extend strong environmental protections to an area greater in size than all of the country's national parks combined.
Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope called the rule the "greatest land protection victory in a generation," and he praised the outgoing president for "leaving a legacy of wild forests for all Americans who love to hunt, hike, fish and camp."
"Today's announcement is a victory for us all - for everyone who has ever walked in a forest, for the millions of us who rely on our national forests for clean drinking water, and for future generations," Pope said.
REBUBLICANS VOW TO UNDO THE RULE
But the logging and mining industries renewed their vigorous and long standing objections to the rule, and a host of influential Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill promised overturn the new roadless policy. Utah Congressman Jim Hansen, the newly elected chairman of the powerful House Resource Committee, said the outgoing Clinton administration has imposed an "arbitrary, illegal road ban over a third of this nation's national forests."
"As chairman of the Resource Committee, I will make it a priority to undo this kind of reckless, last minute maneuvering," Hansen said. "The American people deserve thoughtful, rational policies that allow local management and public enjoyment of their own lands. They don't deserve this last minute manipulation and grandstanding by a man desperate for a legacy."
Hansen has vowed to hold Congressional hearings on the "illegal" roadless rule within the next 60 days.
Hansen's call for a review of the rule was echoed by Senator Frank Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska and the chairman of the Senate's Energy and Environment Committee. Murkowski pronounced the roadless rule to be "fatally flawed," and he predicted that it will be overturned by the courts.
"In light of the numerous legal violations committed in the development of this rule, I am quite confident that it will be overturned," Murkowski said.
Murkowski and a host of other Western Republican lawmakers have informed Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman that they intend to exercise their authority under the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Act to closely review the legality of the rule.
The lawmakers have also threatened to call for a Congressional resolution to overturn the rule, and to send the measure back to the Forest Service to "do it right."
Murkowski has for months complained that the Forest Service made numerous mistakes in reviewing the administration's roadless proposal, which generated the largest volume of public comments in the history of the agency.
TONGASS LOOMS LARGE IN THE DEBATE
Murkowski said the roadless policy would be especially devastating for timber harvesting activities in Alaska's Tongass National Forest, the nation's largest. Roadless areas in the Tongass, which had been exempted from the road building and commercial logging prohibitions in earlier drafts of the policy, are now subject to those restrictions, with certain exceptions.
When the roadless policy is fully implemented in the Tongass after April 2004, timber production will drop by more than 50 percent, Murkowski said.
Murkowski said the policy will result in the loss of nearly 400 jobs, with payroll losses topping $17 million. The road building ban will also result in the elimination of 141 Forest Service jobs, which represent an additional payroll of more than $7 million, Murkowski said.
"The Forest Service acknowledges that this proposal will have a greater impact on Alaska than anywhere else in the country," Murkowski said.
Murkowski, Hansen and other federal lawmakers have all claimed that the roadless policy will increase the risk of catastrophic wildfires. Mike Klein, a spokesperson for the American Forest & Paper Association, echoed that view.
"It's devastating for the health of the forests," Klein said of the roadless policy. "It basically builds a wall around 60 million acres, and that means scientists can't get in to treat diseased areas, it means that firefighters can't get in to put out fires, it means that forest managers can't get in to manage the forest."
Klein noted that timber production from the national forest system has already been reduced about 75 percent in the last eight years, so he predicted that the roadless ban will have the most impact on smaller logging companies. Klein added that the ban will hurt rural school districts, which reap revenues from timber sales conducted on the national forest system.
Hansen expressed a similar view. "President Clinton wanted to strike at American logging and energy companies with this ban, but he's hit John Q. Public even harder," the Utah Republican said. President Clinton has just shut the American public out of 60 million acres of their own land. This is one of the most offensive examples I've seen of Washington, DC telling the rest of the country what's good for it."
WHITE HOUSE FIRES BACK
George Frampton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, was quick to counter that view. Frampton said that the new roadless rule was subjected to the "most robust public comment period ever," in which more than 600 public meetings were conducted and more than 1.5 million comments were reviewed by the Forest Service.
"This has proved to be overwhelmingly popular," Frampton said of the rule.
Any administration, to change the rule, will have to go through the full formal process under a number of federal environmental laws. That will involve scoping hearings and taking public comments all over again. Frampton said, "That's a very long, detailed process. I think if it's started, it is going to produce a great deal of public opposition."
Frampton dismissed charges that the roadless policy is too extreme, noting that it does contain provisions for thinning trees to reduce wildfire risks, and for restoring forest health.
Frampton downplayed the rule's effects on timber harvesting activities in the Tongass National Forest, noting that certain timber sales already in the "pipeline" in that forest will be "grandfathered in" under the new roadless policy. The grandfathering clause, Frampton said, will ensure that there will be a steady supply of timber from roadless areas in that forest for the next seven years.
Timber sales slated for roadless areas in other national forests will also be grandfathered in under the new policy, but only if they have been finalized with a record of decision, Frampton said.
Asked about how the new rule will effect the nation's supply of timber, Frampton said, "If you take the Tongass out, there was very, very little planned timber sale activity over the next five years in roadless areas. Eighty percent of the national effect is Tongass, but the rest is pretty negligible - you're talking about maybe a dozen timber sales a year at most around the whole country."
Frampton downplayed the human impacts of those lost sales, saying that no more than 200 jobs will be lost nationally.
Still, Frampton said that the Forest Service will propose a $72 million, six year assistance program to ease the economic transition for affected communities. Of that total, $38.5 million will be directed to help communities in southeast Alaska, Frampton said.
Frampton dismissed fears that the new rule will increase the risk of devastating wildfires, calling the allegation a "total red herring." He noted that only a tiny portion of roadless areas have been classified as being at high risk of wildfires. He emphasized that the new rule contains provisions for thinning to take out fuel that would feed wildfires and emergency access should it be required.
BUSH ADMINISTRATION HINTS AT ENVIRONMENTAL ROLL BACKS
Frampton denied that the rule is a last desperate effort to save the pristine roadless areas from President-elect George W. Bush, whose environmental record had been ridiculed by many in the conservation community. Frampton said that the rule has been in the works for some time, and that it is designed to "close the loop" on a process begun in the 1920s by the great conservationist Aldo Leopold.
Clinton gave credit to Leopold in his remarks on Friday, saying, "When we see the land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect."
Asked if the country could expect the same kind of conservation commitment from the incoming Bush administration, Frampton said, "I guess you'd have to ask Gale Norton that question."
Norton, who formerly served as attorney general for the state of Colorado, is Bush's nominee for Secretary of the Interior. Environmental groups have been sharply critical of Norton, who has ties to James Watt, regarded by many as the most anti-environmental Interior Secretary in the nation's history.
Asked if the "specter" of a Norton Interior Department had prompted any of the many conservation initiatives launched by the Clinton administration in the waning weeks of its tenure, Frampton said, "Absolutely not - I can't think of a single decision that we have planned ... that would be in the slightest way different if Al Gore had been elected."
Frampton predicted that it would be difficult for the incoming Bush administration to "roll back" the new roadless rule, or any of the 12 national monuments that Clinton has created by use of the 1906 Antiquities Act.
"In past administrations there have been legal opinions to the effect that the designation of a monument is the exercise of delegated legislative power, so a subsequent administration cannot undo a monument by another executive order," said Frampton. Still, he added, "I don't think that's ever really been tested in court."
Except for boundary changes, no national monument has ever been undone by another administration or Congress, Frampton noted.
"It obviously remains to be seen what Congress will do or what the administration will do, but I hope in the end that they decide to move on to some of the challenges of the future," Frampton said.
Asked if Bush would move to roll back or negate the flurry of environmental initiatives launched by the Clinton administration in the waning weeks of its term, Ari Fleischer, Bush's press secretary, said, "It is the president's prerogative to do as he sees fit."
Fleischer told reporters that the Bush team "will not comment on some of these last minute executive orders that [Clinton] is pursuing." Fleischer said, "We will review each and every one of them. We are taking note of them."
More information on the new roadless rule can be found online at: http://www.fs.fed.us/news/roads.