'Conservation' strategy is a wolf in sheep's clothing

  • Chris Wood

  • Bush on roadless areas

    Jack Ohman

One of our nation’s more dubious political practices is the tendency to cloak questionable — even harmful — environmental policies in the rhetoric of conservation. Consider the debatable environmental merits of the current administration’s "Clear Skies" and "Healthy Forest" initiatives, two policies that many argue weaken existing protections for air, water and forests.

This month, the Bush administration let loose its biggest environmental whopper yet. In announcing the new "Roadless Area Conservation" policy, the administration removed 58.5 million acres of publicly owned forest from federal protections against the road-building and timber-cutting practices that have ecologically unraveled so many of our public lands.

"Our actions today advance the Bush administration’s commitment to cooperatively conserving roadless areas," Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said in announcing the plan, which calls for greater state oversight of these lands.

This clever use of euphemism to describe policies harmful to air, water and land represents a calculated strategy to polarize the environment as an issue among voters. As always, most Americans are busy trying to make ends meet, and now, along with the economy, their concerns center on national security and terrorism, far more so than on nature. For the past 20 years, poll after poll has depicted voters as sympathetic to environmental issues, but today, when asked to discern the reality that’s somewhere between the Bush administration’s environmental double-speak and the often hyperbolic response of environmental groups, most people throw up their hands in confusion. Then they tune out.

Yet, for one large constituency — whose interests it claims to safeguard — this administration may now have gone too far. More than 55 million Americans hunt and fish. As a constituency, hunters and anglers are not prone to proclaim that the sky is falling every time the administration launches another policy initiative. Hunters and anglers are more likely to view state and federal agencies as partners than as adversaries. Working together with agency managers, such groups as Trout Unlimited donate hundreds of thousands of hours of volunteer labor to clean up streams and repair degraded watersheds on public lands across America.

Hunters and anglers do so in part because they know that the opportunity to enjoy our nation’s shared outdoors is constantly threatened. Every day in the United States, more than 8,700 acres of forest, field, wetlands and open space are lost to development and urbanization. When you consider that more and more private land is posted off-limits to hunting and fishing, you begin to see why hunters and anglers think the protection of wildlife and fish habitat on public lands is so important.

Hunters and anglers also know that the last, best wildlife and fish habitat on the public lands is in our national forests’ roadless areas. But now, as a result of the administration’s recent action, these areas are vulnerable to development. Consider the fish and wildlife values of roadless areas in Idaho, the backdrop for the announcement of the new roadless policy. Idaho’s roadless areas:

      • Comprise 75 percent of the remaining habitat for endangered chinook salmon and steelhead;
      • Harbor nearly 60 percent of the remaining habitat for the Idaho state fish, the westslope cutthroat trout;
      • Yield the largest animals and provide the longest hunting seasons for deer and elk.

Even as Secretary Veneman pledged her commitment to "maintain the undeveloped character of the most pristine areas of the National Forest System," plans are proceeding for roadless-area timber sales in Alaska and Oregon, including the largest timber sale in Forest Service history in southern Oregon. New roads are planned in roadless areas for oil and gas development in Colorado and Wyoming.

For too long, both political parties have either ignored or taken for granted the interests of the millions of Americans who hunt and fish. No amount of double-talk, however, can mask the vital importance of roadless areas to fish, wildlife and water resources. And even the cleverest use of euphemism cannot disguise the truth about the Bush administration’s actions regarding roadless area "conservation." Actions speak louder than words.

Chris Wood was a policy advisor to Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck during the Clinton administration; he is now vice president for conservation at Trout Unlimited in Arlington, Virginia.