As states ponder protection, roadless forests unravel

Forest Service says it’s bound by the rules to allow some logging, drilling and mining

  • East Muddy Creek snakes through the Clear Fork roadless area in western Colorado, home to part of one of the largest contiguous aspen forests in the world. Sections of the Clear Fork will be offered for gas leasing in August.

    Sloan Shoemaker, Wilderness Workshop

The Clear Fork roadless area in western Colorado holds one of the largest expanses of aspen trees in the world. In 2001, the 24,000-acre tract in the Grand Mesa-Uncompahgre-Gunnison National Forest was protected, part of 58.5 million acres preserved nationwide by President Clinton’s Roadless Area Conservation Rule.

Shortly after taking office, President Bush abandoned his predecessor’s rule by failing to defend it against lawsuits. Then, last May, the administration unveiled its own version of the rule, and allowed individual governors a say in how roadless areas in their states are managed. While states consider whether to recommend protections — they have until Nov. 13 to submit petitions — the Forest Service promised not to move forward with any development in roadless areas (HCN, 12/26/05: Roadless forest plans draw crowds — and lawsuits).

But even as Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, R, gathers public input, the Clear Fork may be headed for the auction block. Next month, at the behest of industry, federal officials plan to offer part of the area for natural gas exploration. At least 14 other roadless-area projects, ranging from energy development to logging and mining, are also in the works around the West.

Outraged environmentalists say the Forest Service is doing more than just breaking a promise; it’s also potentially overriding states’ wishes. Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the Carbondale, Colo.-based Wilderness Workshop, calls it "a very disingenuous policy on the part of the administration."

But Mark Rey, the Department of Agriculture undersecretary who oversees the Forest Service, says environmentalists’ fears of a development blitzkrieg are unfounded. The Forest Service says it is approving only those projects it’s legally obliged to approve, under current forest plans or court order.

Rey points to the Mike’s Gulch salvage timber sale in Oregon’s South Kalmiopsis roadless area as an example. Environmentalists see the June sale, within the area burned by the 2002 Biscuit Fire, as precedent-setting. But Bush’s 2005 roadless rule exempted the Biscuit Burn from protection, and Rey says the project would have been approved even under Clinton’s roadless rule, which included exceptions for improving forest health, enhancing wildlife habitat, or reducing the risk of unnaturally intense wildfires. The courts upheld the salvage logging plan, and Rey says it "will not diminish the roadless character" of the area, because the trees will be removed via helicopter.

As for the Clear Fork, Rey says the Forest Service could rescind any leases sold there in August if Owens requests that the area be protected. Critics argue, however, that once the area is leased for energy exploration, it will be all but impossible to stop it from being developed.

But a complex tangle of policies dictates what the agency can and cannot do right now. Bush’s 2005 roadless rule says that until a state files a petition and the Department of Agriculture makes a decision on it, each roadless area will continue to be managed under its forest’s current plan. But under an interim directive renewed in January, the agency can change the way it manages a roadless area, provided it performs a new roads analysis. The directive also allows Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth or regional agency officials to approve certain road-building or timber projects.

The confusing rules have even supporters of the Bush rule raising an eyebrow. "Frankly, the whole process is less than understandable for the public," says Steve Robinson, natural resource policy advisor to Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn, R. "We supported it at first, because we generally think it’s good to have the states involved in the process. But it’s so ill-defined, it’s hard to get a handle on what it means."

Robert Vandermark, director of the Heritage Forests Campaign, says Bush’s rule is full of loopholes: "A lot of these projects that have been on the shelf are being reinvigorated before the Nov. 13 deadline."

All the recent activity underscores the need for governors to petition to protect their roadless areas, Vandermark adds. So far, only one Western state, New Mexico, has submitted a petition, although Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Utah all have petitions in the works. Some states, such as Wyoming, have indicated they would rather work with the Forest Service to determine how to manage roadless areas.

If a state doesn’t file a strong petition, or if the administration rejects its petition, intact wild areas will once again be managed according to individual forest plans. That prospect rankles Vandermark and other forest advocates. "With population growth, more wild areas are dwindling every day, and we should really want to preserve these last remaining areas," he says. "To just go in and take them away really does a disservice to the American people."

The author is a freelance writer in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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