This is no time to step back from the Roadless Rule

  While researching a new book last spring, I had the opportunity and pleasure of interviewing Dale Bosworth, chief of the Forest Service. I found him to be an honest, straightforward, forthcoming, and, at times, courageous man. So when I read that he had agreed to the repeal of the Clinton-era Roadless Rule on our national forests--a ruling he supported as a career forester in the Clinton administration--I was shocked.

I wrote to Chief Bosworth, suggesting that if he couldn’t deter the Bush administration from its reversal of this epic act of conservation, he should consider resigning in protest. This public act of conscience would draw attention to a tragic step backward.

In response, he called me to talk. That the chief of the Forest Service would reach out like this impressed me once again. His willingness to discuss big issues with ordinary citizens and his openness about his beliefs were rare and refreshing.

Bosworth expressed two concerns about the original ruling: This sweeping rule, he said, which preserves more than 58 million roadless acres on national forests from further road-building, left no room for boundary adjustments based on what’s really out there. And, he added, the Forest Service needed more outreach to locals who were feeling disenfranchised.

He assured me that "we don’t need more roads, we need to decommission roads." He said that large timber companies are dinosaurs with little remaining power, and that our 58 million acres of roadless public lands are not in danger.

I was not reassured. I still feel as strongly as ever that the Roadless Rule is a visionary act of conservation on the same scale as Jimmy Carter’s preservation of Alaska wildlands. Fine-tuning this vision does not require rejecting it.

The Clinton administration wasn’t perfect, but the bedrock of its approach to the environment was conservation. It did not see landscapes and resources primarily as commodities, to be sold off quickly for corporate profit.

The Bush administration demonstrates the opposite agenda. It has sought to change the framework of federal protection to turn over as much control as possible to state and local officials and to maximize short-term profit for energy and other corporations. Bush and his inner circle are methodically dismantling generations of bipartisan conservation law.

Administrations come and go, and agency heads can be ordered to give away the farm. If administrators happen to be weaker than a Dale Bosworth, they may well say yes.

This is the crux of the problem with the Bush revision of the Roadless Rule. Citizen involvement had already helped to develop a strong national policy of protecting this nation’s remaining roadless acres. The Bush plan opens every last acre for discussion, with states free to petition the Secretary of Agriculture to lobby for development. Why would we want to revisit this question, state by state, forest by forest, with politics pressuring us to modify our already-stated national policy?

More American citizens wrote to the Forest Service to support the Roadless Rule -- this powerful statement about our dedication to conserving unroaded wildlands within our national forests--than expressed opinions on any other federal rule, ever. Short or long, every comment represented citizens who took the trouble and time to write. It didn’t matter where they lived, because each of us is a public-land owner, and in the America we strive to create, every vote counts equally.

Conservation is conservative. Every loss is permanent. Generations to follow won’t approve if we sell off their heritage casually. I’ve written again to the Forest Service chief, pleading with him to think about his legacy. In one scenario, he will be remembered as the man who fought for the greatest large-scale conservation action of the last hundred years. In the alternate version, historians will identify him as the man who agreed to the largest de-protection action of the last hundred years.

Why abandon protection we already have in place? Why risk any chance of political expediency overriding national interest? It is our obligation to think nationally, to retain as many resources as possible for our grandchildren, and their grandchildren, to keep the debate over development as far as possible from corporate greed and special interests.

The Roadless Rule isn’t as powerful as wilderness designation. But it makes wild country more difficult to fragment with new roads. Repealing the rule makes wildlands more vulnerable. It’s as simple as that.

Stephen Trimble is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer, photographer and naturalist in Salt Lake City, Utah, whose 20th book, Bargaining for Eden, will be published next year.

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