Bush Retains Roadless Rule, But Plans Revisions

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, May 4, 2001 (ENS) - The Bush Administration announced today that it is not overturning the Clinton era roadless protection rule for national forests. However, the administration opened up the possibility for future decisions that could open the nation's last unbroken forest tracts to logging and mining.

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced this afternoon that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will implement the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, restricting logging and road building activities in 58.5 million acres of national forest lands.

Veneman

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman (Photo courtesy USDA)
Veneman also announced a new rulemaking process to address what she called "reasonable concerns" raised about the rule that could substantially alter the rule's implementation, and lead to resource development in some areas.

"This administration is committed to providing roadless protection for our national forests," said Veneman. "Conserving these precious lands requires a responsible and balanced approach that fairly addresses concerns raised by local communities, tribes, and states impacted by the rule."

In early June, the USDA will propose amendments to the rule's implementation process, and seek public opinion on alternatives, including potentially throwing management decisions regarding roadless areas back to regional forest managers.

Veneman said her decision was based on concerns raised by several states and some local communities over how the rule was developed. Some of those issues have led to lawsuits by Idaho, Montana and several timber companies seeking to overturn the rule.

Specifically, Veneman said the proposed amendments will address concerns that maps of roadless areas are inaccurate, and that local fire and disease management issues are not addressed by the rule in its current form. In the meantime, the rule will take effect as is on May 12.

road

Roads cut through more than half of National Forest lands, making it harder for some species to survive (Photo courtesy Forest Service)
"Because roadless protection is the right thing to do, it is important that we do it right," Veneman said. "The actions we are announcing today are responsible. They ensure forest protection and address important concerns that could adversely impact local communities."

House Resources Committee chair James Hansen, a Utah Republican, hailed the Bush Administration's decision to reexamine the roadless rule. Hansen and 30 other House members delivered a letter to President George W. Bush on Thursday outlining the impact the roadless rule would have on western states.

"The Bush Administration made the right call in reopening the rule making process on the Roadless Area Conservation rule," said Hansen. "The previous process was biased and flawed. The rule's impact on existing roads, local economies and our nation's ability to fight devastating forest fires were ignored."

"This rule would close thousands of miles of existing roads," added Hansen. "The previous administration used bad science and faulty maps in deciding which areas were roadless."

The USDA said today that the areas covered by the original rule include more than 2.5 million acres that already have roads.

But the timber industry said the Bush administration did not go far enough to protect logging interests.

"The American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) is concerned the Bush Administration is allowing the Roadless Area Conservation Policy to take effect on May 12, 2001," said AF&PA president and CEO W. Henson Moore, in a statement. "We believe the process by which the Forest Service promulgated the rule was clearly flawed and the policy will not withstand scrutiny in the courts."

AF&PA, together with several co-plaintiffs, filed suit against the roadless policy on April 20.

wildfire

Wildfire risks could be used as an excuse to open access to roadless forest areas (Photo courtesy Forest Service)
Representative Hansen and the AF&PA share concerns over the roadless rule's potential effects on wildfire risks and accessing private lands contained within roadless areas. Veneman pledged today to address those concerns in the amendments to be proposed in June.

Those proposed amendments, which remain undefined, raise warning flags among environmentalists.

Veneman said she thought the changes to be proposed are unlikely to be "substantial." But one possibility discussed by Veneman would give regional Forest Service managers jurisdiction over whether to allow roadbuilding, logging and other activities in currently roadless areas.

That same system reigned for decades before the Clinton roadless rule was introduced, and led to logging and mining on millions of acres of public lands.

"Allowing each national forest to decide for itself whether or not to protect individual roadless areas is exactly what led to 30 years of conflict, 386,000 miles of roads and an $8 billion maintenance backlog in the first place," said Marty Hayden, legislative director for Earthjustice. "Why return to a proven failure?"

In fact, the roadless rule in its present form offers a great deal of discretionary power to local forest service officials, pointed out Niel Lawrence, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Fire management, grazing, hardrock mining access and other resource decisions would be left to agency officials under the existing rule, Lawrence said.

Tongass

The state of Alaska has filed a lawsuit opposing restrictions on roadless areas of the Tongass National Forest (Photo courtesy Southeast Alaska Conservation Council)
Giving Forest Service managers even more discretion, by removing the nationwide "hands off" policy of the Clinton rule, would invite unwise decisions by local managers pressured by industry officials, conservation groups warned.

Veneman said that restoring jurisdiction over roadless areas to local managers would allow them to draw on "local expertise and experience through the local forest planning process." That planning process, which creates individual management plans for each national forest, was redefined by the Clinton administration to emphasize ecosystem management and environmental standards.

But the Bush administration is now reviewing the new management guidelines, and may throw them out in favor of older guidelines that promote logging and other extractive industries. For decades, those old guidelines were used to justify clearcut logging, and taxpayer funded roadbuilding and logging subsidies.

"The Clinton Roadless Rule was the right approach - it put these lands beyond the reach of Boise Cascade and the other timber industry giants who want the American taxpayer to pay the bill for paving the way to environmental destruction," said Doug Honnold, managing attorney of the Bozeman, Montana office of Earthjustice. "The Bush approach would say 'come and get it' to the timber companies, the oil and gas companies, and other extractive industries."

Justifying the move to rewrite the current rule, Veneman cited a decision by a federal judge in Idaho who ruled that the roadless rule violated several federal laws, including the public review processes outlined by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

forest

Idaho's lawsuit opposes restrictions on resources like the Clearwater National Forest in Idaho (Photo courtesy Forest Service)
"If we don't do something to amend this rule, the court may throw it out in its entirety," warned Veneman. "If we don't make some kind of adjustment, the rule may be lost entirely."

But environmental groups claimed to be sure they would win any court case based on the premise that the roadless rule did not include enough input by the public.

"The rulemaking process took more than two years to complete, during which time local people spoke at 600 public meetings held on each national forest across the country," said Tiernan Sittenfeld, conservation advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. "A record breaking 1.6 million people submitted comments on the plan, more than 95 percent of which were strongly in support of a strong protection plan."

A new national poll by The Mellman Group shows that 67 percent of voters favor the forest protection policy, Sittenfeld added.

Bosworth

Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth said today he supports the roadless rule - and plans to amend it (Photo courtesy Forest Service)
Newly appointed Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth said the amended rule will still include some overarching national guidelines governing use of roadless areas.

"In the end, what we're trying to do is preserve roadless values," said Bosworth. "Local input and local data doesn't drive everything. There's still a national interest."

Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope warned today that, "the real test is the Administration's defense of the plan in the courts and their enforcement in the forests."

"During Attorney General John Ashcroft's confirmation hearings, he promised, under oath, to defend these protections in court," said Pope. "This plan should be implemented fully and immediately, and we're on watch to ensure the Department of Justice fulfills its obligations to the American people."