Westerners take sides on road ban

  Around the West this winter, citizens flocked to Forest Service "listening sessions," part of an initial scoping process to collect comments on President Clinton's October directive to protect roadless forests (HCN, 11/8/99).

Conservationists dominated regional meetings held in 10 cities, including Portland, Missoula, Salt Lake City and Albuquerque. Many supported the Oregon-based Heritage Forest Campaign: "Our message is simple," says campaign leader Ken Rait. "Protect all roadless areas greater than 1,000 acres in all national forests from any kind of destructive activity." That could be as much as 60 to 80 million acres.

The message was more complicated at meetings held at national forest headquarters in rural areas. While Clinton's proposal was welcomed with open arms by most people who attended a Bitterroot National Forest meeting in Hamilton, Mont., at a Flathead forest meeting in Kalispell, conservationists were shouted down.

"This is a much bigger issue in the small towns in the West," says Winema National Forest spokesman Frank Erickson. About 60 people packed a meeting in Klamath Falls, Ore., in spite of a story in the local newspaper urging folks to stay home and watch the football game because the Forest Service had already made up its mind. Many expressed concern that more protection would kill a proposed ski area on Pelican Butte (HCN, 2/2/98).

"There was a real concern that the federal government is usurping a long and involved local planning process," says Erickson.

Cindy Chojnacky, spokeswoman for the Forest Service's Roadless Involvement Team in Washington, D.C., says the loudest criticism of the plan is coming not from the timber industry, but from off-road vehicle drivers, who say the plan will cut off access.

But many people were confused about the process, Chojnacky adds. "I was surprised how many people perceived that it was a vote on wilderness or not. We don't designate wilderness. Only Congress can do that." Instead, the Forest Service is working on a new set of rules that may or may not ban future logging and off-road vehicle use. "We're really looking at the future of areas that have never been accessed," she says.

The public will have another chance to comment on the proposal, when the Forest Service finishes a draft environmental impact statement. The president asked the agency to complete a final EIS by the end of 2000, but opponents such as Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig have vowed to stall the process until a new president takes office in 2001.

* Greg Hanscom

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