Western governors wary of roadless forest mess

Bush administration touts state control, but Washington, D.C., will make the final call

  • A hiker rests along the Centennial Trail in Idaho's Meadow Creek Roadless Area, part of the Nez Perce National Forest in 'imminent danger' from new roadless area rules, according to environmental groups

    Jay Krajik, Idaho Stock Images

When President Bush retooled his predecessor’s Roadless Area Conservation Rule, his administration promised to restore local control and give the states a say in managing national forests. But now it looks as though the fate of those areas will rest with Washington, D.C., after all. The Clinton-era rule put 58.5 million acres of national forest land off-limits to road-building, mining and logging. Under the new rule, issued in May, governors have until November 2006 to petition the secretary of Agriculture to protect roadless forests within their states (HCN, 8/16/04: Feds pass roadless headache to states).

When the revised rule was announced this spring, some Western governors, such as Nevada’s Kenny Guinn, R, and Idaho’s Dirk Kempthorne, R, praised it as a cooperative approach. Others, including Oregon’s Ted Kulongoski, Washington’s Christine Gregoire, Arizona’s Janet Napolitano and Montana’s Brian Schweitzer — all Democrats — decried it as an attempt to push a federal responsibility onto the states. Still, they said they wanted to protect their state’s roadless areas.

But after reading the fine print, even governors who initially supported the new rule have balked at the cost of petitioning. The process requires states to identify and map the areas they want to protect, make management recommendations, and determine how the suggested plan would affect wildlife, among other requirements. If the Agriculture Department approves the petition, the state and the Forest Service will then develop a specific policy for the state.

To some state leaders, putting together a petition has started to look like a complex and possibly futile exercise. In June, Montana Gov. Schweitzer sent a letter to President Bush, pointing out that "the final rule stipulates that (the Agriculture Department) retains final approval authority over any state roadless rule petition, providing no assurances that state efforts and investments would bear fruit. In other words, Washington has the final say, not Montanans."

The 11 Western states claim 71 percent of the nation’s roadless areas, but to date, only one of them has committed to filing a petition. If a governor does not file a petition, or the petition is rejected, each national forest will determine what activities are allowed in roadless areas, just as it did prior to the Clinton rule. In short, the new rule looks like a flop — which is perhaps, environmentalists say, just what the Bush administration intended.

Too high a price

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, D, who two years ago beseeched the Bush administration to keep the Clinton rule, is the only Western governor who says he is definitely committed to a petition. New Mexico is currently enjoying an oil- and gas-funded budget surplus, but the process is still daunting, says Ned Farquhar, Richardson’s senior policy advisor on energy and the environment.

Forest Service spokesman Dan Jiron says that much of the information states need to file a petition already exists in forest-management plans, and that the process should only cost a state between $25,000 and $100,000. But that figure is "laughably low," says Farquhar, adding that New Mexico has asked Congress for $500,000 to fund "a good quality process" for the state’s 1.6 million roadless acres.

Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who oversees the Forest Service, has said the agency will try to give states some financial help for petitions. However, this year’s budget did not allocate any money for that purpose, and next year’s budget has yet to be determined.

And there’s another significant cost — political capital. Although the petition process involves public input, many governors don’t appear willing to risk angering a substantial chunk of the electorate by tangling with this divisive issue.

Some governors, including Oregon’s Kulongoski and Colorado’s Bill Owens, R, plan to solicit input from industry groups, environmentalists and the general public before deciding whether to submit petitions. Schweitzer plans to meet with county commissioners across the state.

Other states are looking to individual national forests to determine the fate of roadless areas. Utah and Nevada plan to put their stamp on forest-management plans when they come up for revision, typically every 10 to 15 years. Idaho’s Kempthorne says he will ask for public input on existing plans. California, governed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, R, is negotiating with the Forest Service to protect some roadless areas.

Forest protection in tatters

This patchwork response does not bode well for national forests, says Robert Vandermark, director of the Heritage Forests Campaign, which led the charge for the original roadless rule. "The administration has replaced a permanent federal management policy with a strictly voluntary policy filled with loopholes," he says. "It accomplishes (their) goal of eliminating the roadless rule."

Environmental groups say they may sue over the new rule as soon as this summer, arguing that the administration’s repeal of the Clinton rule was illegal.

On Capitol Hill, Reps. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., and Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., and several co-sponsors plan to reintroduce legislation this year to reinstate federal protection. Prospects for the bill appear dim, however, with many Western Republicans steadfastly supporting the new rule.

The Forest Service’s Jiron says that "roadless areas will look much the same after this process is complete as they did before." Those areas have been off-limits to development since the Clinton rule was overturned in 2001, and they’ll remain so until the petition deadline arrives — with the notable exception of salvage logging in Oregon’s Siskiyou National Forest (HCN, 5/16/05: Unsalvageable).

In New Mexico, Gov. Richardson would like to believe that his petition will make sure his state’s roadless areas remain roadless. Farquhar has his doubts, though.

"The governor will petition with whatever resources we’re able to put together," he says. "But they’re probably going to reject it anyway."

The author writes from Santa Fe, New Mexico. HCN News Editor Jodi Peterson contributed to this story.

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