Roadless-less

The campaign to protect unroaded forests gets torn apart by a Wyoming judge in 'half-assed retirement'

  • Cindy Wehling photo illustration; Istock photos
  • The watershed of Oregon's Rogue River includes roadless areas protected by Clinton's rule.

    Dang Ngo/Zuma Press
  • Wyoming federal judge Clarence Brimmer Jr. found that Clinton's rule was illegally rigged -- infuriating environmentalists.

    Todd Newcomer
  • The campaign persuaded more than a million people to send boilerplate comments to the Clinton administration on postcards like the one at left and mass e-mails and faxes. More than 80,000 people signed petitions circulated by Aveda, a company that makes eco-friendly beauty products and works with salons nationwide. This year, the campaign is urging the Obama administration to back Clinton's rule, by sending more mass e-mails and running ads during last spring's NCAA basketball tournament calling for a "Time Out!" on activities in roadless areas.

  • Ken Rait, a skilled politico based in Oregon, ran Pew Charitable Trust's Heritage Forests Campaign from 1997 until the Clinton roadless rule was finalized in 2001. Now he's campaigns director for another Pew-funded group, the Campaign for America's Wilderness.

  • George T. Frampton Jr. ran The Wilderness Society from 1986 to 1993, then pushed for the roadless rule within the Clinton White House as head of the Council on Environmental Quality. He's now a corporate lawyer working on clean energy issues.

  • Mike Dombeck was the U.S. Forest Service Chief from 1997 to 2001, overseeing the roadless rule process. He's now a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He's also been a National Wildlife Federation board member.

 

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Storey worked with Green Corps, a "graduate school for environmental organizers" run by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group; PIRG generated a torrent of postcard comments across the country. Sporting-goods stores and manufacturers -- organized as the Outdoor Industry Association -- passed out postcards to their customers. The most surprising player was the Aveda Corp., which sells eco-friendly beauty products and works with salons and spas nationwide. Aveda used its network to persuade more than 80,000 people to sign a petition in support of the roadless rule; many did so while getting their hair or nails done.

The campaign also lined up sympathetic scientists and religious leaders. It conducted polls that posed general questions about forest protection, finding widespread support for the "motherhood and apple pie" vision, and fed those to newspaper editorial writers. And it organized networks of activists to attend hearings and provided vans to haul them. Turner describes how the enviros outfoxed their opponents in a Missoula, Mont., hearing: "The timber industry had sent truckers to pack the hall, first providing a meal at 'the world's largest picnic table.' So the pro-roadless activists got to the hearing room early, filled all the chairs, and signed up for all the speaking slots. The truckers were reduced to chanting slogans outside, on the street. (Journalists) reported that the timber industry representatives chose to demonstrate outside and not participate in the hearing." (Click for more details on the campaign's ground game.)

More than 1.6 million total comments swamped the Forest Service -- "the most extensive public involvement in the history of federal rulemaking," according to The Wilderness Society. More than 90 percent were mass-mailed boilerplate comments supporting the rule one way or another.

The final version of Clinton's rule was published in the Federal Register on Jan. 12, 2001, eight days before Clinton left office. It was cleverly written. It banned logging as well as road construction, with exceptions for public safety or ecosystem health. But it didn't ban off-road driving or mining; the enviros believed they lacked the legal foundation to address those issues in an administrative rule. "We wanted as much protection as we could get that would be legally defensible," Rait says.

In effect, the rule created a new category of federal land: Wilderness Lite. When roadless acres were combined with designated wilderness, about half the total area of the national forests would be protected.

The typical pattern of rage erupted in response. Republican Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, a timber industry champion, called the idea "a hand grenade rolled under my door." Other Western Republicans in Congress denounced it, as did Republican governors, rural county commissioners, timber companies and people who said they preferred access and flexibility to increased federal control.

Most rural Westerners apparently opposed it. More than a hundred locals attended a Forest Service roadless meeting in Grangeville, Idaho in December 1999, and "most (over 80 percent) were opposed ... many were angry at the 'administration' and the Forest Service for the 'top down' nature of the proposal," reported a Forest Service staffer. "Nearly all (50) speakers opposed the initiative," reported a staffer at a hearing in Dillon, Mont., the same month. Meanwhile, the West's college towns and metro areas were either divided or approving. People from other regions generally favored regulating Western public land.

Idaho's Craig and Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage, R, held hearings in Congress that examined and blasted the rule-making. "Wise Use" movement leader Ron Arnold called it "the iron triangle" of green foundations, green groups and Clintonites. They spouted shrill rhetoric about yet another enviro conspiracy to destroy the rural West.

The leading critics failed to acknowledge the impacts of logging and mining and other industries, or the risks of rural communities locking themselves into undiversified boom-and-bust economies. They ignored the way oil and coal can get presidents such as George W. Bush to shape regulations in their favor. They didn't mind the iron triangles formed by big corporations, right-wing foundations and libertarian think tanks that use money and spin to influence federal land-use policies.

Instead of inspiring an honest dialogue that admitted the blind spots on both sides, the roadless rule fell into court battles. At least nine lawsuits in various federal courts have challenged either the Clinton rule or a 2004 Bush rollback of it. And the courts seem determined to carry on the political wrangling.

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