Bush administration blinks on roadless rule

Attack on forest protection may backfire


WASHINGTON, D.C. - Remember that old line that tells you to beware of getting what you wished for? The Bush administration and the timber industry may be on the verge of providing another illustration.

Even with a federal judge on their side.

The administration wished to get rid of the national forest Roadless Area Conservaton Rule, both because Bill Clinton promulgated it and because the industry wanted to get rid of it. The industry wanted to get rid of it because Clinton promulgated it, because it would ban logging on some 58 million acres of national forest, but largely because ... well, that's complicated; we'll get to it later.

So when the state of Idaho and Boise-Cascade challenged the rule in federal court, the Justice Department barely went through the motions of defending it (HCN, 4/23/01: Roadless rule hits the skids). No wonder that Judge Edward Lodge sided with the plaintiffs and issued a preliminary injunction against the rule two days before it would have taken effect.

Judge Lodge, described by knowledgeable Idahoans as a conservative but not a right-winger, cited the Bush administration's "own admission" that they "share plaintiffs' concerns about the potential for irreparable harm in the long-term," under the rule.

Obviously pleased, the administration vacillated about whether to appeal. The environmental groups who have "intervenor" status did not, and expressed confidence that they would prevail.

For the nonce, the judge has gotten the administration off the hook. Unless and until an appellate court reinstates the rule, the administration won't have to go ahead with its earlier, reluctant, agreement to let it take effect, but to amend it.

All these machinations support the contention of some environmentalists that the proposed amendments were a sham * a pretext for gutting the rule while appearing to preserve it. According to a press release from the Agriculture Department, the amendments would discuss giving forests more protection from fire and insects, and "working together with states and communities," both of which have been employed as excuses to give chain saws and feller-bunchers unlimited access to the woods.

But consider: Amending the rule was not what the administration really wanted to do. And therefore, what it eventually proposes may not be what it really wants to propose. The reason? Plain and simple politics.

That pesky public

Like its predecessors, this administration polls, and no doubt its private polls are consistent with the public survey by the Los Angeles Times, which showed a healthy 58 percent majority supporting the roadless rule, with majorities even in the Rocky Mountain West. More broadly, the poll leaves little doubt that substantial majorities favor natural resource protection in general.

So the administration blinked. And in the words of Michael Francis, The Wilderness Society's forestry maven, "maybe we can make them blink again." With that majority, maybe he and his allies can. After all, the pro-rule forces overwhelmed their opponents at public hearings during the initial rule-making process. Sure, it was all coordinated by environmental groups. But the notion that the timber industry lacks the resources to pack meetings and activate letter-writers is absurd on its face.

Meanwhile, the Bushies have handed the Greenies a wonderful recruitment mechanism. The administration can't just amend the rule by fiat. It has to go through a process, including public comment, maybe even public hearings. Considering that their allies complained that the Clinton administration didn't give them enough time to express themselves, the administration might find it awkward to forgo more public debate. These hearings could be great TV, but more likely for the Sierra Club than for Boise-Cascade.

Or, if Judge Lodge is upheld, for Earth First!, Cascadia Alive, Julia Butterfly and others inclined to lie down in front of bulldozers. The first road project in a roadless area is all but certain to be the scene of what left-of-centrists love to call "a direct action," perhaps a rather popular direct action. Instead of muttering about "crazy kids," Mr. Mythical Average American sitting in his suburban den (remember, he's in that pro-rule majority), is likely to say, "you know, Ethel, these kids have a point; let's send 'em a check."

So even with the rule suspended, don't expect much logging in the areas it was designed to protect.

Adding to the administration's woes, there is reason to believe that its new Forest Service chief, Dale Bosworth, likes the rule. He has praised it in the past. And on his first post-appointment visit to Washington, according to reliable sources, he met with environmentalists who told him they would "unleash a holy jihad," (the words of one irreverent source, not a participant) should he seek to scuttle the rule. Few career bureaucrats like to start a new job with a big fight.

Not-so-simple politics

So why, in the face of all this, is the industry still fighting so hard, especially when there really isn't all that much commercial timber in the protected areas? Plain and not-so-simple politics, that's why. First, they still hate Clinton. And it's a convenient diversion. Mills are closing all over the Interior West, not because of forest rules but because of technological advances and consolidation in this global age. How convenient to be able to tell the angry residents of a (former) mill town that their troubles were all caused by Bill Clinton and those nasty environmentalists.

Besides, the industry long ago made common cause with the Inland West's conservative politicians, who long ago decided not to compromise on forestry issues. Through their fervor, they effectively created the national constituency that conceived and enacted the roadless rule. No one likes to admit defeat, especially the defeated.

Jon Margolis listens for trees falling in the Washington, D.C., forest from Barton, Vermont.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Jon Margolis