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Our Unprotected Public Lands

Despite what most people believe, more than 80% of our national forests remain unprotected. More than 90 million acres (52%) of the lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service have been impacted by decades of forest clearcutting, oil and gas development, mining, and other industrial uses. These 90 million acres are crisscrossed with nearly 380,000 miles of official roads - more than 8 times the number of roads in the U.S. interstate system.
graph of unprotected forest land
Less than one-fifth of the 192-million acre National Forest System is protected and off-limits to logging, mining, drilling, and other destructive activities. This sliver of America's public lands stands as a crucial source of clean water, habitat for threatened and endangered species, biological diversity, recreation, hunting and fishing, and refuge from the stress of daily life.

At stake are 60 million acres, just 30 percent of the National Forest System - still wild and roadless but unprotected from logging, mining, and road building. These wild lands make up America's Heritage Forests, consisting of all the unprotected wild areas 1000 acres and larger managed by the U.S.

Why Protect Wild, Roadless Areas?
They provide a variety of important public values.

  • They are sources of outstanding recreation, unique fish and wildlife habitat, and clean drinking water
  • Road building and logging severely impact these scenic lands and render useless the forest's values.
  • Most importantly, we have a responsibility to protect these special places as an enduring legacy for future generations.

Logging, mining, road-building and other development activities in our national forests have already destroyed an enormous portion of our wild forests.

Roads built in the national forests primarily for industrial uses such as logging, mining, oil drilling, and other activities damage watersheds, destroy wildlife habitat, and ruin scenic vistas. Roads are a major source of erosion, stream sedimentation, and other environmental degradation. Furthermore, inadequate road maintenance has been identified as a significant cause of watershed deterioration.

Clearcut logging removes entire stands of trees, leaving forest slopes bare from top to bottom - effectively eroding the land and choking streams and rivers with silt and runoff. Logging also destroys important fish and wild life habitat by fragmenting forests into small isolated pieces, disrupting critical ecological processes.

Nationwide, the value of recreation in national forests overwhelmingly exceeds the value of logging and mining combined. In 2000, the projected economic impact of recreation in the National Forest System will be $110 billion in contrast with $3.5 billion from logging.

The national forests are America's single largest source of outdoor recreation, and the demand on them for recreation in the next century is projected to rise substantially. Economic studies project that the National Forest System will experience 1.2 billion in visitor-use-days in 2040, an increase from 860 million days during 1996.

Public Support
There is widespread public support in all regions of the countryamong men and women, Republicans and Democratsfor a federal policy to permanently protect roadless areas that are 1,000 acres of larger. Two-thirds of the American public, regardless of party affiliation or home region, want to protect our nation's scenic wild lands.

Protecting Wild Areas
We need to protect America's Heritage Forests. A sensible, permanent policy that protects all remaining 60 million acres of pristine roadless areas in our national forests is the only way to safeguard these rapidly dwindling, unprotected forests.

January 1998
The Forest Service, recognizing the importance of national forest roadless areas for their recreational, habitat, and watershed values announced plans to temporarily halt road construction in roadless areas on public forest lands, and in March, 1999, an 18-month moratorium on the construction of new roads was implemented. Unfortunately, the interim moratorium halts new road construction in less than 60 percent of roadless areas and does not prohibit logging, mineral development, and other destructive activities in those areas.

October 13, 1999
President Clinton directed the U.S. Forest Service to develop a policy to protect up to 60 million acres of national forest wild lands. As a result the Forest Service is now in the process of developing a policy on how roadless areas should be managed and what form of protection they should be granted.

May 9, 2000
the Forest Service released its draft plan for implementing the president's proposal. Unfortunately, among the range of alternatives in the plan, the Forest Service's "preferred option" places no restrictions on logging as long as it can be done without roads. Technologies, such as cable and helicopter logging, are routinely utilized to extract timber without road construction. Their preferred alternative also calls for exempting entirely from the plan the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, where 50% of all roadless area logging and road-building is expected to occur in the next four years.

What Next?

Through a series of nearly 400 public hearings nationwide, the public will have the opportunity to comment on the draft policy. If the plan is going to provide real and lasting protection for nation's wild forests, it must:

  • Permanently protect all roadless areas of 1,000 acres or more on all national forests, with no exemptions.
  • Protect the wild forests from logging and other damaging activities, as well as from new road building,
  • Include the Tongass National Forest

We are on the verge of forever losing our unprotected wild lands to irresponsible development and careless stewardship. With most of our wild forests already destroyed, we can ill afford to lose any more. With the dawning of the new millennium, this is the lease we can do for future generations.
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