President Bill Clinton sought to end the debate over 58 million acres of roadless national forests with a rule published in the last days of his administration. But because he issued his rule in the face of the outright anger of some Western governors and with little pretext of engaging his opponents, the roadless issue -- after nearly eight years -- is still no closer to political resolution.
On July 14, U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer of Cheyenne struck down the roadless rule, scolding the former president for trying to stuff his decision down the throats of loggers, miners and other Westerners. It was at least the fifth time courts have ruled on the roadless rule since it was approved, and the second time Brimmer himself has tossed it out. His decision, certain to be appealed, means the next president will have to address an issue that today's hard economic times had more or less resolved. What continues is the values clash over how we manage our least-developed national forests.
One possible path to a new consensus has been blazed by the state of Idaho. With Trout Unlimited, the Idaho Conservation League and the Intermountain Forest Industry Association standing in support behind them, Idaho Lt. Gov. Jim Risch and U.S. Department of Agriculture Assistant Secretary Mark Rey unveiled a roadless rule only for Idaho on Aug. 29.
The proposed rule designates 250 roadless areas, totaling about 8.9 million acres. It establishes five management themes that will guide road construction, timber cutting and mineral development. But another 400,000 acres would be reopened to roading and logging, which is why The Wilderness Society and other environmental groups oppose Idaho's new rule.
Since the passage of the Wilderness Act 40 years ago, the nation's largely undeveloped roadless lands have been at the center of controversy in the West. That law protected many of the nation's remote areas, banning logging and motorized use within their boundaries. Preservationists have since sought to protect much of the remaining roadless area in the national wilderness system.
When the Clinton administration originally proposed its roadless rule, it did so as one solution to a budgeting problem facing the U.S. Forest Service. The agency had a $10 billion backlog of road maintenance and improvement projects for its road system, which includes over 400,000 miles of roads in the 192 million acres of national forest. A major reason that the nation's roadless areas have remained roadless is that they tend to be the areas where lumber was most difficult -- and expensive -- to obtain. Without logging, and without a consensus in Congress to subsidize loggers to build roads and cut timber, Clinton's initiative simply echoed the reality on the ground.
There were other factors that limited the logging of these areas, including stricter water quality rules, the Endangered Species Act and increased competition from Canada's timber industry. Nonetheless, for both environmentalists and loggers the roadless issue has become a rallying point -- a way to express their values and build their bases.
For many environmentalists, roadless protection became equated with wilderness protection. The word roadless replaced the word wilderness in promotional materials, and to many advocates of wild places where cars and bikes are not allowed, the two concepts became the same. There was, of course, some value in blurring the distinctions at a time when climate change, air pollution and the clear recognition of historic Indian impacts on wild areas were challenging the myth of a totally pristine place untouched by man.
Now, Brimmer's latest decision, at least temporarily, overrules the 2006 order by California federal Judge Elizabeth LaPorte, who reinstated the Clinton rule. Her decision is pending before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Because of these dueling court decisions, the next administration will be faced with the same political pressures over this issue. At least Idaho's success, which still must pass legal challenges itself, offers an alternative path, and similar deals can be forged where possible in the Forest Service state-by-state independent rulemaking strategy. Colorado's is the next test.
Another route open is for a new administration to use Idaho's plan as a model for a national compromise. But whatever happens, don't expect permanent roads to be built soon in the nation's 58 million acres of roadless national forest.
Rocky Barker is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the environmental writer for IdahoStatesman.com in Boise, Idaho, and the author of Scorched Earth: How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America.