Clinton's roadless plan hits the skids

The Olympian


WASHINGTON -- When sawmill owner Bill Mulligan looks at nearby Clearwater and Nez Perce national forests, he sees trees that could be cut and sent to his Three Rivers Timber operation.
But Mulligan said the number of trees available for logging in Kamiah, Idaho, has dropped over the years.

He blames the Clinton administration for forest policies that restricted or banned logging on many public forestlands.

The big timber companies have moved out, allowing smaller operations like his to bid on 80 percent of all timber harvests the U.S. Forest Service puts out for bid.

"The problem we have in the area is that 80 percent of nothing is nothing," Mulligan said.

One Clinton-era policy that concerns Mulligan would put nearly 60 million acres of undeveloped, mostly inaccessible Forest Service land out of reach for logging, mining, and oil and gas drilling.

But the regulation, known as the roadless area conservation rule, might be on the endangered list because of legal challenges by opponents and the Bush administration's decision in mid-2001 to put the policy on hold.

Environmentalists, timber industry representatives and sportsmen say there's no telling when the courts or the Bush administration will resolve the issue.

"The signals I've had from the administration is that they would wait to see what the courts would do and the courts are waiting for the administration to act," said Michael Klein, spokesman for the American Forest and Paper Association, which has challenged the rule.

"The fact is that the rule is not in effect," said Chris Wood, vice president for conservation at Trout Unlimited and a member of a group trying to find a compromise.

Environmentalists also fear the roadless policy could be undermined by the Bush administration's Thanksgiving eve proposal to give regional managers of the nation's 155 national forests the power to approve commercial or recreational activities in the forests without first determining if there would be any environmental damage.

The proposal would "essentially gut protections for roadless areas," said Todd True, an attorney with the Seattle-based Earthjustice.

As written in 2001, the roadless rule would ban the construction of permanent roads and the logging, mining and other commercial pursuits that usually follow them. The policy would apply to about one-third of the 192 million acres of publicly owned grasslands and forests in the U.S. Forest system.

Fifty-one percent of current forestlands support some form of commercial use while 18 percent are wilderness areas off-limits to development and motorized traffic.

The roadless rule was one of several flash points during the Clinton administration where environmentalists clashed with timber companies, the mining industry and outdoor recreation groups over who has access to federal lands.

The debate illustrated a difference in philosophy. Many in the West consider public forests to be working lands for logging, livestock grazing and mining. Environmentalists see the Western lands as the last reserves of unspoiled or nearly unspoiled land.

"These are the last areas never impacted by road construction. By and large, these are areas that have never been logged or mined. They are the best of what is left," said James Lyons, the former Clinton administration official who oversaw development of the roadless rule.

Environmentalists say the rule is needed to protect wild areas, plant and animal habitats and watersheds from polluting traffic and soil erosion caused by roads.

Mike Leahy, natural resources counsel for the Defenders of Wildlife, said the concept has support among the general public. Leahy cited more than 1 million comments -- the majority of them supportive -- from the public, tribal leaders and elected government officials.


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