Forest chief steers agency down a rocky road

Forest supervisor warns that Dombeck's policy will spark civil disobedience

 

Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck continues to try to steer his agency down a greener path. In early March, Dombeck released a long-awaited draft of his road management policy. The policy has been in the works since January 1998, when he declared an 18-month moratorium on road building in national forests (HCN, 4/27/98: Forest Service seeks a new (roadless) road to the future).

The policy would require agency staffers to take an ecological, science-based approach when considering building any new roads or reconstructing old ones. The required analysis is not the same as an environmental impact study, says Dombeck's aide, Chris Wood, but it does compel land managers to ask a lot more questions before bulldozing.

As for bulldozers, they would more likely obliterate roads than build them: The plan calls for aggressive decommissioning of unnecessary and unauthorized roads. "Our road system is complete," says Wood. "We need to downsize."

Dombeck emphasizes that local people would help determine what roads to maintain and what roads to close. "This policy will enable us to engage local people in constructive dialogue about how they want their national forests and grasslands managed," he says.

Critics say the policy is a swipe against multiple-use land management that will lock out the public.

"Ripping up roads is not resource management," says Don Amador with the Blue Ribbon Coalition, an organization of off-road vehicle users.

Even before the release of the road policy, tension was running high within the rank and file of the Forest Service.

In December, following public hearings addressing roadless area protection, James Caswell, forest supervisor for Idaho's Clearwater National Forest, sent a letter to Dombeck, saying that in his 20 years with the Forest Service he had "never experienced such public disbelief and animosity directed toward any policy proposal.

"The track and approach we are on is just flat wrong," he wrote. "It mocks every speech and public statement regarding collaboration you have made since becoming chief.

"It is important for you to understand that people here are walking on the edge. There will be civil disobedience and possibly worse."

The letter was circulated throughout the Forest Service.

In a March 14 letter to all Forest Service employees, Dombeck acknowledged that some in the agency are disturbed by changes he is making. But the agency has been struggling with the roadless area debate since the Roadless Area Reviews (RAREs) of the 1970s, he said. "We went through RARE I and RARE II, we tried 20 years of local planning efforts, and a directive to forest supervisors to address the issue through plan adjustments," he wrote, "yet the controversy still persists.

"I don't have all the answers, but I do know that in an increasingly developed landscape, rare and vanishing roadless area values such as wildness, naturalness, clean drinking water, wildlife and fish habitat, and dispersed recreation opportunities will become more and more important," he added. "I hope that you take the long view when considering the roadless issue."

As it now reads, Dombeck's road management policy would cover both roaded and roadless national forest land.

The public comment period for the draft road policy ends May 2 and a final document is expected by September.

The agency is also working on a plan to address President Clinton's October 1999 directive to protect roadless areas (HCN, 11/8/99: A new road for public lands). The plan, which could put even tighter road building restrictions on roadless areas, is expected in November.

YOU CAN ...

  • Contact Heidi Valetkevitch, Forest Service Office of Communication, 202/205-0914;
  • Read Dombeck's policy on the Web at: www.fs.fed.us/news/roads;
  • Send written comments on the draft policy by May 2: USFS CAET, Attention: Roads, P.O. Box 22300, Salt Lake City, UT 84122;
  • Fax written comments to 801/517-1021.
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