Roadless plan slides to safety

Dombeck stakes out his vision for federal forests

 

In a last-minute flurry of plans and pronouncements, the outgoing Clinton administration attempted to fix a course for national forest management. On Jan. 5, President Clinton released the final version of the much-anticipated roadless plan.

In the works since the Forest Service first called for a moratorium on road-building in 1998, the plan bans future road-building and restricts logging in 58.5 million acres of roadless national forest - nearly one-third of national forest lands (HCN, 11/8/99: A new road for the public lands). Though an earlier version of the ban delayed protection of Alaska's Tongass National Forest until 2004, 9.3 million acres of the Alaska forest will receive immediate protection under the final rule.

To roadless-plan advocates, Clinton's announcement caps years of activism around the issue. Henry Carey of the Forest Trust calls the plan the "high point in the Clinton administration," and a "great step forward for sustainable forestry." The plan will not affect the 386,000 miles of roads already in place in national forests, and Carey says there's already more than enough forest access for his group's small-scale logging projects. Brian McNitt of the Alaska Rainforest Coalition says he was "surprised and excited" at the inclusion of the Tongass, and credits public comment with changing the administration's position.

But Frank Carroll, who works for the Potlatch Timber Corporation in Lewiston, Idaho, says the plan subscribes to "the Disneyland theory of land management." He says, "People who believe you can manage a forest by putting a glass globe over it are living in a fantasy." Carroll says unmanaged forest lands will turn into a "dog-haired thicket of trees" and become more vulnerable to wildfires.

Many Western politicians share Carroll's views. In a letter to President-elect George Bush, Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, vowed to fight what he calls one of the Clinton administration's "most egregious abuses," contending that the plan was "developed without the benefit of sound scientific support." Hansen's threat carries weight, since he is now at the helm of the House Resources Committee (HCN, 1/29/01: Weirdness abounds in Washington).

Opponents have fired off an opening salvo of legal actions. The BlueRibbon Coalition, a national off-road vehicle group, is a plaintiff in a case filed against the Forest Service on Jan. 8. Adena Cook says her group harbors a "suspicion that this thing was hardwired and the outcome predetermined." She hopes the coalition's lawsuit will lead to "a re-examination of what went on during this fast and furious year." The states of Idaho and Alaska also plan to bring roadless-related suits against the Forest Service. Andy Stahl of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics says these suits could have big impacts. He fears "a backroom deal" negotiated between plaintiffs and the Justice Department will overturn or weaken the rule.

Congress could also determine the future of the roadless plan, and has 60 days to review the rule before it goes into effect. Under the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act, which provides for the review of new policies that have an economic impact greater than $100 million, Congress could vote to overturn the plan. Environmentalists will also watch for riders on spending bills that could alter the final rule.

Three days after the release of the roadless plan, Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck called for the inventory and protection of old-growth forests. "What we do not need to do to accomplish our stewardship responsibilities is to harvest old-growth trees," he declared. Though the speech did not establish an official policy, Dombeck staked out his vision for the management of federal forest lands in no uncertain terms.

"It was not a dictum, but it was a clear expression of the agency's direction over the coming year," says Chris Wood, special assistant to Dombeck. With the appointment of a new Forest Service chief looming, time will tell whether Clinton's administration has spoken with enough amplitude and power to withstand the changing of the guard.

Kirsten Bovee is an HCN intern.

For more information ...

  • Call Brian McNitt, Alaska Rainforest Campaign, 907/747-8292, www.akrain.org;
  • Call Adena Cook, BlueRibbon Coalition, 208/524-3062, www.sharetrails.org;
  • Find the Final Rule on the Web www.roadless.fs.fed.us, or request copies of the Final EIS by calling 1-800-384-7623.