Gov. Locke sees no reason to change Clinton roadless rule

Thursday, June 12, 2003

Columbian staff writer

Olympia, WA - The Bush administration wants to give governors a say in managing more than 40 million acres of back-country national forests, but Washington Gov. Gary Locke isn't jumping at the chance.

In the wake of the administration's latest effort to tweak the Clinton-era Roadless Area Conservation Rule, Locke's natural resource adviser says the governor already enjoys a good relationship with regional federal forest managers, and he sees no reason to tinker with a rule affecting just under 2 million acres of national forests in Washington.

Ron Shultz, Locke's natural resources policy adviser, added that the governor wants no special attention.

"These are national forests. They're owned by everybody in the country," Shultz said. "Just as with state forests, somebody in Wahkiakum County has an interest in what happens in the state forest near Colville."

U.S. Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey announced earlier this week that, while the administration now plans to retain the Clinton conservation rule, it will be amended to allow governors a chance to identify "exceptional circumstances" when logging or road-building might be necessary in currently roadless areas. Governors could ask for exemptions to protect public safety; reduce hazardous fuels and restore essential wildlife habitat; provide reasonable access to private property; or make technical corrections, such as boundary adjustments to remove existing roaded areas.

Locke's response: Thanks, but no thanks.

"We think the current rules and the structure of broader forest rules provide sufficient mechanisms to address those four points," Shultz said.

In a telephone interview Wednesday, Rey acknowledged that the rule already gives local foresters the opportunity to build roads or clear brush in emergency situations. But he said that the rule, enacted in the final days of President Clinton's term, ignored the concerns expressed by a dozen states.

"This is a way of righting that wrong," said Rey, who oversees the Forest Service.

Subject of lawsuits

Timber industry groups, backed by Western states such as Idaho, sued over the rule, saying that locking up such a wide swath of land could lead to insect infestations, wildfire and disease. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that argument when it upheld the roadless rule in December.

By law, wilderness areas are supposed to be kept so pristine that machines of any kind are banned from entering them.

The same protection is not accorded roadless areas, which Forest Service planners designated while searching for potential wilderness areas after the Wilderness Act of 1964. Generally, roadless areas are back-country areas larger than 5,000 acres.

Rey said he believes previous efforts to protect roadless areas fizzled over the past 30 years because the federal government failed to give states enough say.

Locke, a Democrat, wants no part of another roadless rule rewrite.

Rey acknowledged Locke's stance, but added that other governors should be able to petition for logging or road-building in roadless areas where they detect an "emerging" threat. Rey said that's a distinction lost in the current rule, which only allows forest managers to address "emergencies" in roadless areas.

"Right now in Washington, the governor may not perceive any emerging threat," he said. "That's fine, but at the same time, it strikes me that there's no logic for him to oppose something that might give him a broader option in the future."

Environmental groups contend that the public overwhelmingly demonstrated its support for protecting roadless areas during the rule-making process three years ago.

"Allowing the governor to say what goes on on federal lands, owned by not only residents of the state but everyone nationally, is problematic," said Susan Jane Brown, executive director of the environmental group Gifford Pinchot Task Force in Vancouver.

The rule affects about 213,000 acres of roadless areas in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, including the 55,000-acre Dark Divide between Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams. Besides amending the rule to allow governors a say on managing roadless areas in the lower 48 states, the administration will drop Alaska's vast Tongass and Chugach national forests.


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