How do you enter a roadless area?

 

How do you enter roadless lands in the West? Quietly, with a walking staff, a sketchbook, a camera? Not according to the Bush administration: It enters with a chainsaw.

On Aug. 7, loggers arrived at the Mike's Gulch timber sale in the Siskiyou Mountains of southern Oregon, fired up their chainsaws, and began cutting trees. Not an extraordinary event in the timber country of the Pacific Northwest, but this is no ordinary logging show. Mike's Gulch is on the border of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area, and is an inventoried roadless area on the Siskiyou National Forest. This timber sale is the first logging to occur in an inventoried roadless area anywhere in the United States since Bill Clinton issued a policy protecting these areas in January 2001.

A brief history is in order. In the last 1990s, a coalition of wilderness advocates, big game hunters, salmon fishermen and research scientists convinced President Clinton that it was time to consider strong protections for roadless areas in national forests. The Clinton administration then undertook the most extensive public input process for any land-use decision in U.S. history. When it was done, over 1.5 million public comments had been received, and more than 95 percent of them favored strict protections for roadless areas. President Clinton's Roadless Rule was issues on Jan. 12, 2001, in the last week of his presidency. It declared 58.5 million acres of roadless areas essentially off-limits to road-building, logging or other development.

On his first day in office, President Bush suspended the rule and called for further review. Throughout Bush's first term, the administration continued to pay lip service to protecting roadless areas but refused to defend the Roadless Rule in court and hacked off key elements, for example by denying roadless protections to Alaska's huge Tongass and Chugach national forests. Finally, in May 2005, the administration repealed the Roadless Rule and threw the issue to the states -- but the policy reserved the final decision on roadless areas for the Forest Service chief.

In Oregon, the state's answer was immediate. Gov. Ted Kulongoski announced his intention to petition for full protection of roadless areas. He also joined the governors of Washington, California and New Mexico in a lawsuit challenging the legality of Bush's Roadless Repeal.

Meanwhile, the Forest Service had been busy planning a massive salvage logging program in the area of southern Oregon's Biscuit Fire, which burned over 300,000 acres in 2002. Ignoring a moderate salvage proposal that was acceptable to environmentalists, the Forest Service proposed instead the largest single logging plan in American history: over 500 million board feet. For the first time ever, this plan renounced protections for inventoried roadless areas and old-growth forest reserves set aside under the Northwest Forest Plan. The final plan adopted by the Forest Service approved the logging of 370 million board-feet, including over 8,000 acres of inventoried roadless areas and over 6,000 acres of old growth reserves. The Forest Service team leader who developed the rejected moderate logging plan described the underlying agenda this way: "They don't care about the [timber] volume. They want to get into the roadless areas. They want to poke environmentalists in the eye."

The Bush administration was also prepared to poke the governor of Oregon in the eye. Despite the pending lawsuit by Kulongoski and three other governors — due to be decided soon — and despite the impending November due date for the states' petitions on management of roadless areas, the Bush administration refused to wait. Logging the Mike's Gulch roadless area, and nearby in an old growth reserve, has begun.

Like the rest of us, the Bush administration must be judged by its deeds, not its words. While the words speak of states' rights, forest health and respect for public process, the deeds tell another story. That story is a tale of unwavering commitment to the interests of timber companies and other resource extraction industries. If you would speak to the Bush administration in opposition to that agenda, it makes no difference whether you are a private citizen or the governor of a state. You have no voice. Who could hear, anyway, over the whine of the chainsaws?

Pepper Trail is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a wildlife biologist and writer in Ashland, Oregon.