Road ban proposal eroded by exceptions

  The Forest Service has overseen the addition of more than 380,000 miles of roads to national forests - a network more than twice the size of the national highway system. Now, the Clinton administration wants to call an 18-month halt to the construction of new roads in roadless areas.


Forest Service spokesman Alan Polk says the proposed moratorium would give the Forest Service a chance to reevaluate its roads program, now facing a $10 billion maintenance backlog. But the ban would apply only to inventoried roadless areas greater than 5,000 acres in size, though it would include areas of more than 1,000 acres if they border existing wilderness areas. Scheduled logging contracts would go forward under the moratorium, as would planning for future timber sales in roadless areas.


Road building would also continue in unroaded regions of 19 national forests in Washington and Oregon, the Tongass National Forest in Alaska and several forests in California and Colorado. "The forests excluded in the Pacific Northwest have up-to-date (management) plans that include current science and extensive public participation," explains Polk.


Many environmental groups lobbied unsuccessfully against the agency's exclusions. Chuck Clausen of the Natural Resources Defense Council, questioning the agency's claim that current forest plans are scientifically sound, says: "Although the Forest Service likes to wrap themselves in the blanket of good science, we have yet to see it." Ken Rait of the Oregon Natural Resources Council calls the regional exemptions "a significant flaw in this policy. We've eroded our protected wilderness base to the point that we need to do everything we can to save what's left."


Meanwhile, timber industry representatives wonder why the proposal is necessary at all. "We're extremely disappointed that the Clinton administration has chosen to ignore past bipartisan efforts in the Pacific Northwest," says Chris West of the Northwest Forestry Association, citing timber sales planned for eastern Oregon, Montana and Idaho that would be halted by the ban.


The public comment period on the proposal ends Feb. 27. Comments can be sent to Director, Ecosystem Management Coordination, Mail Stop 1104, USDA - Forest Service, P.O. Box 96090, Washington DC 20090 or roads@fs.fed.us. The complete proposal has not yet been published in the Federal Register, but is available on the Internet at http://www.fs.fed.us/news/roads.


* Michelle Nijhuis, HCN intern