Bush Ready to Revise Roadless Rule

By J.R. Pegg

June 10, 2003 (ENS) - The battle over how to protect the national forests took another turn Monday, as Bush administration officials announced revisions to the Clinton era rule that bans roadbuilding in 58 million acres of the national forests.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman says the administration will issue an amendment to the rule to allow individual exemptions for states as well as a new regulation to reverse the rule within parts of Alaskan national forests.

Critics believe this is another clear sign the administration is backing away from the protection of roadless areas within the national forests, but Veneman says this is not the case.

"We are committed to maintaining the character of designated, authentic roadless areas," said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman.

Veneman says the proposals are designed to give states the needed flexibility to manage the health of roadless areas and balance the needs of rural communities with environmental protections.

Environmentalists contend the administration is undermining a regulation it never had any intention of supporting, despite overtones to the contrary. kootenai

Passions run high over protection for roadless areas, such as this tract within Montana's Kootenai National Forest. (Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service )
It is an "unbelievably shameless attack on our national forests," said Tiernan Sittenfeld, conservation advocate, U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

"The administration's clear objective here is to mask its intention to log and drill in roadless areas of our national forests until after the 2004 election," said Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust.

"In the meantime, the Bush administration plans to hide behind Republican governors of western states like Idaho and Colorado, who have consistently been champions of the timber industry, and who will undoubtedly petition to exempt roadless areas in their states from protection," Clapp said.

The Roadless Area Conservation Rule has been a source of controversy since it was put into effect in January 2001 during the dying days of the Clinton administration.

It bans roadbuilding within some 58 million acres - or one third - of the national forests for commercial activities, but does allow new roads if needed to fight fires or to protect public health and safety.

Supporters say it provide vital protection for some of the nation's last remaining wild places and wildlife. They contend roadbuilding in these roadless areas only further subsidizes the timber industry and note that the Forest Service already faces a maintenance backlog of $8.4 billion for its 380,000 mile network of forest roads.

A bipartisan bill to cement the rule into law was introduced last week in both houses of Congress.

But nine lawsuits involving seven states were filed challenging the rule over the past two years and the Bush administration believes the rule is too broad, even though the most recent ruling, made by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on April 14, 2003, upheld the rule.

Veneman said Monday that the administration has settled Alaska's challenge to the rule, a settlement that commits the Forest Service to open some 300,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest to logging.

Alaska had challenged the rule as a violation of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which was passed in 1980 and prohibits administrative land withdrawals.

The areas that will be proposed where previously identified for logging in the 1997 management plan for the forest.

Alaska officials cheered the announcement, which supporters believe will revitalize the logging industry in Southeast Alaska while protecting 95 percent of the 16.9 million acre Tongass.

The settlement "provides hope that the jobs of more than a 1,000 Alaskans in Southeast have been saved," said Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican.

"It also is good for the forest since the vast majority of it remains protected for fish and wildlife," Murkowski said. "The Bush administration deserves credit for taking this balanced, rational step."

Critics are outraged by the move to allow logging to proceed in roadless areas of the Tongass, which is the largest U.S. national forest and the largest remaining temperate rainforest on Earth.

"This pattern of 'sue and settle' by the administration completely takes the public out of the process and leaves public land management decisions behind bureaucratic closed doors," said Robert Vandermark, co-director of the Heritage Forests Campaign. kootenai

The administration's policies could allow road construction within Alaska's 5.5 million acre Chugach National Forest. (Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service)
Environmentalists say it is important to remember that much of the Tongass National Forest is not forest. Two thirds is rock, ice, wet lands and scrub timber, and critics believe the logging proposal endangers valuable old growth and critical habitat for endangered and threatened species.

Over the past half century, the Tongass has lost a million acres of prime, old-growth forest to clearcut logging and the construction of more than 4,650 access roads. According to the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, these roads and timber sales have been subsidized by $30 million taxpayer dollars each year.

Both supporters and opponents of the administration's settlement believe it will set important precedents. Murkowski and fellow Alaskan Don Young, a Republican Congressman, hope it will open the door to road construction within the 5.5 million acre Chugach National Forest.

These roads are needed to allow forest managers to fight the impacts and fire dangers caused by spruce bark beetles, said Young, who added that "anyone who believes the Roadless Rule has done anything but harm the Chugach Forest needs to visit it."

"The forest requires active management and the sooner the better," Young said.

But many environmentalists, who have been sharply critical of much of the administration's forest management decisions, see "active management" as a not so subtle codeword for "more logging."

"The Bush administration is watering down the most popular federal rulemaking in history - making their disdain for public involvement in land management crystal clear," Vandermark said.

Veneman says the Forest Service plans to complete the proposed rule for the Tongass by September, and the proposed revision granting state exemptions will be published in the fall for public comment, with the goal of issuing the final revision by the end of the year.