Let the states broker roadless lands -- it’s the democratic way

  This July, the U.S. Forest Service proposed a new administrative rule dealing with the controversial issue of roadless areas in national forests. Environmental groups reacted as you might expect. For example, a "personal" spam I received from John Adams at the Natural Resources Defense Council warned that the Bush administration "is lining up massive timber and energy sales that will send an armada of bulldozers and chainsaws, as well as oil and gas rigs, into our last untrammeled forests."

Even former President Clinton got into the act, signing an opinion headlined "Bush puts forests on road to ruin." But the fear isn't borne out by the facts.

For example, on Alaska's 17 million acre Tongass National Forest in Alaska, where Greenpeace protesters are now dangling in direct actions, there are about 8.7 million acres of old growth. Seven million Tongass acres are already congressionally designated wilderness or wilderness within a national monument, compared to 2.5 million acres where timber harvest is allowed.

How much can really be cut? "Scheduled suitable" acreage, arrived at after factoring in slope, stream buffers, growth rates and other factors-- totals only 676,000 acres, less than 4 percent of the whole forest. The rest will never be touched by saws, Roadless Rule or no Roadless Rule.

Yes, it is possible that new roads may be built, and trails too. Mines might be dug, oil and gas holes drilled. But there isn’t one of us who doesn’t need minerals, fuel and power . And if development occurs someday in these roadless areas, that’s still not the end of the world. Some lands can be explored and drilled for gas, yet years later get reclaimed and become official wilderness.

Furthermore, federal and state environmental laws mean that activities that put the environment at risk anywhere --not only in roadless areas --will get challenged in court.

So what's the real deal? The Bush administration is dropping the roadless issue in the laps of state governors. After all, as the July 16 Federal Register notice declares in classic bureau-speak: "States affected by the roadless rule have been keenly interested in inventoried roadless area management, especially the Western states where most of the agency's inventoried roadless areas are located."

How keen that interest is now, and how it will finally shake out at a state level is a function of two factors: geography and demographics. Geographically speaking, most roadless areas are a peripheral, trivial matter, of importance only to environmental groups. But at the local level, roadless policy decisions can be critical to communities.

For Western states, the way the issue will get resolved depends a lot on the demographics of the rural-urban divide. States with urban centers larger than a half-million people will probably approach the Bush proposal differently than states that lack big cities. Environmentalism is an urban-based movement in terms of both money and membership, and that bears on what we know of politicians, who specialize in following the path of least resistance while counting noses along that path.

Therefore, in Western states with large, liberal cities that politically dominate their mostly conservative hinterlands and small towns -- California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, perhaps Colorado -- each governor may be prone to ask for lots of roadless protection, to be quickly followed by a formal call for congressional action designating wilderness. If so, well, that's democracy.

States that lack large cities -- Idaho, Montana, Alaska, Wyoming-- will probably go the other way. Not coincidentally, those states have the lion's share of roadless areas that aren’t already official wilderness. That's democracy, too. As for Utah, while Salt Lake City is certainly large, the state has been bitterly divided over wilderness and the very definition of "road."

But there is a catch that cuts both ways. In a free country, the fairness of government policy decisions can be judged by whether a policy has the support of those directly affected. The best way to judge that consent, of course, is whether those who make policy are held accountable for their decisions.

Each governor is going to have to make a good-faith effort to ensure balanced public participation, involving the same local communities, tribes, and states that were impacted by, and sued to stop, Clinton's Roadless Area Conservation Rule.

If they don't, well, that's why we have elections -- to find out what citizens think is fair.

Dave Skinner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Whitefish, Montana.

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