Plan expands national forest logging - States would have to petition for protection; proposal miffs conservationists


July 13, 2004

BOISE, Idaho -- The Bush administration Monday proposed lifting a rule that closed remote areas of national forests to logging, instead saying states should decide whether to keep a ban on road-building in those areas.

Environmentalists immediately criticized the change as the biggest timber industry giveaway in history.
Under the proposal, governors would have to petition the federal government to block road-building in remote areas of national forests. Allowing roads to be built would open the areas to logging.

More than 2 million acres in Washington, nearly 2 million acres in Oregon and more than 14 million acres in Alaska would be affected.

Conservation groups say those acres are as valuable to wildlife as they are to hikers, hunters and fishermen.

"What's worst about this proposal is how unnecessary it is," said Chris Wood, vice president of conservation for Trout Unlimited. "Local people have spoken loud and clear that they want these lands protected."

The rule replaces one adopted by the Clinton administration and still under challenge in federal court. It covers about 58 million of the 191 million acres of national forest nationwide.

The Bush administration heralded the plan as an end to the legal uncertainty overshadowing tens of millions of acres of the nation's backcountry.

Bill Pickell, general manager of the Washington Contract Loggers Association based in Olympia, said the decision by the Bush administration is a good sign, but worries that any progress made toward opening forest lands to logging will be blunted if Bush does not win the election in November.

Pickell said even before the Clinton rule banning road-building, logging restrictions had been choking the industry, shutting down several mills on the Olympic Peninsula.

"Most of the logging in the national forests have come to a standstill," Pickell said.

Sales on the Olympic National Forest have gone from 300 million board feet 10 years ago to about 12 million to 15 million board feet now, he said.

Pickell said logging is needed to create better wildlife habitat, reduce forest fuels that can lead to wildfires and open lands for recreationists.

"Without roads, people can't really enjoy the forest either," he said.

Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, called the administration proposal the biggest giveaway to the timber industry in history, arguing that many western states would likely press for development to help struggling rural economies.

"The idea that many governors would want to jump head first into the political snake pit of managing the national forests in their states is laughable," he said. "Besides, the timber industry has invested heavily for years in the campaigns of governors with the largest national and state forests, giving almost equally to Republicans and Democrats."

Supporters tout the new policy as a sensible plan to protect the backcountry while giving governors greater say about national forests within their boundaries.

Critics contend governors don't deserve that power.

"They are governors of states. These are federal lands," said Tom Uniack, conservation director for the Seattle-based Washington Wilderness Coalition.

Washington Gov. Gary Locke, a Democrat, agreed.

"Once again, the Bush administration has abdicated its leadership on a critical environmental issue," Locke said in a statement released Monday afternoon. "The management of our nation's forests demands national solutions that account for the concerns of all Americans."

The new rules would require governors, if they wanted to block road-building for logging, mining or energy exploration, to ask the Forest Service to protect the affected roadless national forest land.

Under the proposal, the 58.5 million acres designated as roadless among the 191 million acres of national forest will be protected from development for another 18 months.

In 2006, each governor may submit a proposal either to continue protecting the roadless land or allow it opened to multiple use. The federal government would consider each state petition and then issue a regulation determining the extent of future roadless protection.

Idaho has the most land in the lower 48 states affected by the roadless designation -- 9.3 million acres -- and was one of the first states to challenge the Clinton administration rule.

Veneman and Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, a Republican, both argued that the proposal ends the legal uncertainty over the old rule and leaves forest management decisions with people most aware of local needs.

But New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat and Clinton administration energy secretary, accused the Forest Service of "walking away from environmental protection."

Richardson said he would petition for protection of all 1.1 million roadless acres in his state and urge other governors to do the same, declaring that "they should not open these areas, period."

U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., agreed with critics of the administration's proposal who say governors should not have greater say about national forests within their boundaries.

"Shifting the responsibility of federal forests to the states is a risky and absurd policy that will cede the management of federal lands to the whims of individual governors," Inslee said.

Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey said if a state does not offer its own proposal on roadless land, the land would become part of the traditional planning process for each national forest. That process has called for development on 24 million of the 58 million acres that Clinton moved to protect.

Federal judges have twice struck down the Clinton rule, most recently in a Wyoming case decided in July 2003. That case, which environmentalists have appealed, is one of several pending legal challenges which have complicated efforts to issue a new plan.

The new plan will be published in the Federal Register this week, and will go into effect after a 60-day comment period extending into September and subsequent departmental review.

Two logging plans were approved in Northwest roadless areas earlier this month: one on 19,465 acres in Oregon's Siskiyou National Forest burned by the 2003 Biscuit fire, the other on a 665-acre swath of the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. Federal officials plan to approve another 1,800-acre harvest in the Tongass next month.

Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski's spokeswoman Mary Ellen Glynn said the Democratic governor was disappointed by the new plan.

"It offers very little protection of some of the most pristine areas in Oregon and in the West," Glynn said. "The roadless rule is something that has been widely supported by most people in the United States as well as Oregonians."

Glynn said the governor's office was weighing its options. "That might involve letter-writing. That might involve litigation," she said. "We don't know yet."



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