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Roads To Ruin

Picture yourself in your favorite national forest. You could be camped in a damp and fragrant grove of old-growth cedars in the Pacific Northwest. Or you might be hiking a trail in the Rockies that's littered with the golden hearts of aspen leaves. But no matter what national forest it is that gives you pleasure, you can be sure that some piece of it will be destroyed if the Bush administration succeeds in its efforts to weaken the U.S. Forest Service's 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule.
Roads To Ruin
Roads To Ruin
AUDUBON MAGAZINE
April 1st, 2003
Roads to Ruin

These forests—from oak and maple woodlands in Illinois to old-growth in Washington—are among our most magnificent. Now the Bush administration is poised to punch holes through the forests and let the log trucks roll. Could 2 million public comments urging their protection be wrong?

Picture yourself in your favorite national forest. You could be camped in a damp and fragrant grove of old-growth cedars in the Pacific Northwest. Or you might be hiking a trail in the Rockies that's littered with the golden hearts of aspen leaves. But no matter what national forest it is that gives you pleasure, you can be sure that some piece of it will be destroyed if the Bush administration succeeds in its efforts to weaken the U.S. Forest Service's 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule.

The Roadless Rule, along with federal laws protecting pristine wilderness and much of Alaska, stands as one of the great land-preservation initiatives of the past four decades. The rule, a Clinton administration executive order, put 58.5 million acres of Forest Service holdings—unroad-ed country that was not legally designated as wilderness—off-limits to development. Hiking, camping, and travel by horses, as well as by off-road vehicles, could continue in roadless areas, as could grazing livestock. The thinning of trees to prevent wildfires or insect infestations would also be permitted.

Yet the Bush administration has done its best to scuttle this conservation legacy. When the government chose not to appeal a preliminary injunction against the Roadless Rule procured by timber giant Boise Cascade, it clearly signaled its support of the lumber company. Earthjustice appealed the injunction on behalf of the Wilderness Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and eight other environmental groups.

In December a federal appeals court upheld the Roadless Rule; as a result, some environ-mentalists—convinced that the judge's reasoning is airtight—have declared victory. But Mark Rey, the former timber-industry lobbyist who oversees White House forest policy, intends to rewrite the rule as he sees fit. "The decision doesn't fundamentally change our course of action," he says. Many expect the legal wrangling to drag on for two years before a resolution is reached.

Still, if the White House has its way, it will proceed with timber sales, road building, and energy development in dozens of roadless areas. These intentions have prompted local citizens to plan legal challenges for their affected forest, a process that's costly and time-consuming—and particularly frustrating when the rationale behind the Roadless Rule was so clear.

Meanwhile, other strategies besides the rollback of the Roadless Rule pose the gravest threats to national forests in a generation. In the name of forest-fire prevention, the Bush administration plans to accelerate the logging of trees and brush by curtailing environmental reviews and public comment. Conservationists view this as a ruse to cut bigger, more commercially valuable trees. In addition, the White House is taking direct aim at the National Forest Management Act, which, since 1976, has provided a blueprint for sound stewardship. Under new regulations, forest plans, which are supposed to consider the protection of fish and wildlife, would be exempted from environmental-impact statements and citizen involvement. On top of that, there would no longer be requirements for independent scientific assessments and science advisory panels. "You put all this together," says Bob Perciasepe, Audubon's senior vice-president of public policy, "and it seems pretty clear that their policy is, Leave No Timber Behind."

The goal of the Roadless Rule is to preserve undeveloped land that doesn't qualify for wilderness designation—land that is rapidly vanishing. As the agency pointed out, between 1992 and 1997 an average of 3.2 million acres per year of privately owned forest, wetlands, farms, and open space were converted to urban uses. By comparison, in the decade preceding 1992 an average of 1.4 million acres per year were developed. In the final version of the Roadless Rule, the Forest Service wrote, "In an increasingly developed landscape, large, unfragmented tracts of land become more important." It further noted that although its unprotected roadless areas make up only 2 percent of the U.S. land base, they represent 33 percent of the nation's major watersheds, and are home to 25 percent of its endangered species and 13 percent of its endangered plants. They provide clean drinking water, support biological diversity, and offer recreational opportunities that are fast disappearing. Interestingly, they barely contribute to the nation's wood supply, since a mere 0.25 percent of America's commercial timber is found in these places. Furthermore, developing these areas would increase the fiscal burden of maintaining the agency's extensive road system, which already measures 386,000 miles and has a backlog of $8.4 billion in deferred maintenance.


A survey conducted by a leading Republican pollster found that 76 percent of the American public supported protecting roadless areas. Support was strong in both parties.

Photo by Kim Hubbard

The public wholeheartedly endorsed the roadless measure. In the largest outpouring of feedback ever received by the Forest Service, 95 percent of the 2.2 million public comments supported protection of these lands. Politicians of all stripes backed the rule. "If we don't do this now, these existing roadless areas will erode away," declared U.S. Senator John Warner (R-VA) last July after introducing a bill with Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) that would have made the rule law. "It is imperative that we act now to protect our natural resources for the benefit of future generations." Their measure is being reintroduced in the current Congress.

As the bill shows, the roadless Rule's popularity is nonpartisan. "A poll taken at the time the rule was being developed—a survey conducted by a leading Republican pollster—found that 76 percent of the American public—more than three-quarters of those surveyed!—supported protecting roadless areas," said Representative Sherwood Boehlert, a New York Republican and a cosponsor of the legislation. "Support was strong in each and every region of the country, and in both political parties. More than 60 percent of Republicans supported protecting roadless areas."

But the Bush administration has turned a deaf ear to Boehlert and his brethren. On forest issues, as newspapers across the country have pointed out, the administration is intent on using executive powers to bypass a resistant Congress. And critics contend that last November's election results have only stiffened its resolve. As Representative George Miller (D-CA) fumed in The New York Times, "Obviously, President Bush has interpreted the recent elections as a mandate to pollute, cut, and drill."

The vox populi has been expressed—and ignored. A variety of developments that would destroy these roadless areas are on the starting line, revved up, and awaiting a nod from the courts.

In the pages that follow, we profile six imperiled roadless areas, including one that looks virtually the same as it did when Lewis and Clark journeyed through it 200 years ago, during their epic Voyage of Discovery.

 http://magazine.audubon.org/features0303/roadless-intro.html

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