The sight of roads snaking through national forests means something different to everyone. Backpackers and sportsmen say roads ruin the chance for solitude; scientists say they destroy habitat, fill streams with silt, harm fish, and usher in weeds. To others, roads represent progress and profit: Timber companies need them to get loggers in — and logs out — of the forest; energy executives need them to reach oil and gas reserves.
But to the U.S. Forest Service, roads represent expense and controversy: The federal agency foots the bill for new roads, and pays to maintain old ones. Road-building has also become a lightning rod for environmental lawsuits.
"Geographically, roadless areas only comprised a third of the national forest system. But they were dominating 80 percent of the debate of forest planning," says Chris Wood, former policy advisor to U.S. Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck under President Clinton, and now vice president for conservation with Trout Unlimited.
So in 1999, facing an $8 billion maintenance backlog for the agency’s 380,000 miles of roads, Dombeck issued an 18-month moratorium on commercial road-building in roadless areas (HCN, 4/27/98: Forest Service seeks a new (roadless) road to the future). What began as a money-saving measure turned into a conservation strategy; and to protect those areas permanently under a new rule, the agency held more than 600 public meetings, and ultimately received 1.6 million e-mails and letters (HCN, 12/4/00: Final roadless plan drives Clinton's legacy.
Then, on Jan. 12, 2001 — eight days before President Bush took office — the Forest Service issued the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which would have placed 58.5 million acres in 38 states off-limits to logging, mining and drilling.
But Bush delayed protection, saying he needed to review the rule before it took effect. Within months, timber companies and states, including Idaho, Utah, Wyoming and Alaska, sued to kill the rule (HCN, 7/30/01: Bush fails to defend roadless rule).
Rather than defending the rule in court, the Bush administration set about writing its own proposal, which was unveiled on July 12 by U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman. Flanked by Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, R, whose state sued the agency over the original rule, and Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, who had threatened to overturn Clinton’s rule in Congress, Veneman outlined the new proposed rule’s five "common-sense conservation principles." These include protecting forests and communities against wildfire and ensuring that private landowners can reach property within roadless areas.
The key difference between the Clinton and Bush proposals is that the former protected roadless areas throughout the national forest system; under Bush’s proposal, governors would have 18 months to ask the Forest Service to protect roadless areas in their states. The final decision, however, would remain with the secretary. Veneman touts the process as an opportunity for state and federal cooperation, but the petition process will be complicated and costly: States seeking protections will need to conduct environmental studies and hold public comment periods; they’ll also be vulnerable to lawsuits.
The new proposal only succeeds in "foisting" the roadless controversy onto the states, says Wood. Now, as governors grapple with state budgets, health care and education, they’re also going to need to figure out how to manage their roadless areas.
Because states aren’t slated to receive federal funding for their petitions, Rob Vandermark, co-director of the Heritage Forests Campaign, wonders how many governors, even those with strong conservation ethics, will have the time, staff and money to complete the process.
Reaction among Western governors has been varied: Idaho Gov. Kempthorne praised the plan as a "meaningful process" during a debate on PBS’s NewsHour, while Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, D, called it an "abdication of responsibility."
And while New Mexico’s Gov. Bill Richardson, D, has vowed to request protection of his state’s roadless forests, he’s not necessarily optimistic that the agency will comply. According to Ned Farquhar, the governor’s energy and environmental policy advisor, the federal government has rejected New Mexico’s request to protect Otero Mesa from oil and gas drilling (HCN, 3/29/04: New Mexicans take a stand against oil and gas). "On the one hand, they want to get the state’s opinion," says Farquhar. "But on Otero Mesa, we gave them (our opinion and a constructive alternative) and (the Bureau of Land Management) rejected it without even reading it, as far as we can tell."
Meanwhile, on the national forests, roadless areas have had a "de facto" form of protection since January 2001, says Ken Rait with the Campaign for America’s Wilderness, "because the Forest Service has been uncertain how to go forward with projects."
And the existing road system continues to deteriorate: According to the Taxpayers for Common Sense, the maintenance backlog for the more than 430,000 miles of existing forest roads exceeds $10 billion. Says Wood: "Why would you even consider building new roads into these remote areas when you can’t even attend to the maintenance backlog?"
The author is HCN assistant editor.
The public comment period for the new rule ends Sept. 14. Read the proposed rule, or search for roadless national forest lands within your state, at http://roadless.fs.fed.us/ .