Controversy simmers over roadless areas

Steve Hanks / Special to The Idaho Statesman


John Bennett, owner of Bennett Forest Industries, blames the Clinton administration for the drop in the number of trees available for logging in Central Idaho. The Clinton-era policy that most concerns Bennett would put nearly 60 million acres of undeveloped, mostly inaccessible Forest Service land out of reach for logging, mining, and oil and gas drilling.

When Idaho sawmill owner John Bennett looks at the nearby Boise National Forest, he sees trees that could be harvested and sent to his Bennett Forest Industries operation in Grangeville.

But Bennett said the number of trees available for logging in Central Idaho has dropped over the years. He blames the Clinton administration for forest policies that restricted or banned logging on many public forestlands.

“I think it was a very ill-conceived and illegal policy,” Bennett said.

The Clinton-era policy that most concerns Bennett and other Idaho mill owners would put nearly 60 million acres of undeveloped, mostly inaccessible Forest Service land out of reach for logging, mining, and oil and gas drilling.

“It would vastly restrict access to the forest,” he said.

But the regulation, known as the roadless area conservation rule, may 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 a 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.

“It’s one of the most popular environmental rules in history,” he said

But Christopher West, vice president of American Forest Resource Council in Portland, said public meetings held around the country were a superficial effort to gather local input. The real decision was made in Washington rather than in local forest districts, a point the timber industry group made in its lawsuit against the rule.

While environmental and industry groups remain at loggerheads, others with an interest in the outcome of the roadless policy are trying to chart a middle ground.

International Paper Co. along with Trout Unlimited, the Wildlife Management Institute and several outdoor groups plan to meet this week in Washington with representatives from various groups, including the Forest Service.

“The wilderness people would like to have more acres in wilderness. The commodity side wants to be able to have free access (to forestlands),” said Terry Riley, conservation director of the Wildlife Management Institute, one of several groups that founded the Forest Roads Working Group.

The starting point for the meeting is a 12-page paper that declares there’s room for commercial activity and protecting sensitive forestlands.

The group plans to submit recommendations to the administration, which it hopes will be considered.

Rob Vandermark, co-director of the Heritage Forests Campaign, believes the roadless rule could survive Bush administration revision efforts because of its high public visibility in the past.

Administration officials, he said, “will uphold it in some way.”

Mill owner Bennett said he enjoys wilderness lands and he thinks they have a place. But he said he doesn’t think the West needs more wilderness.

“I would like to see the Forest Service given the mandate to manage forests for the benefit of all Americans instead of locking them up, which is what the environmentalists want,” he said.


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