Debunking the Myths About the National Forest Roadless Policy
For footnotes and pictures, download the PDF of this article.
In October, 1999 President Clinton set in motion a plan that could result in the permanent protection of up to 60 million acres of our National Forests that still remain wild and "roadless." The U.S. Forest Service is now developing a plan that could result in the permanent protection of these forests, which provide outstanding opportunities for recreation and are critical sources of clean water and habitat for threatened and endangered species.
Since the policy was proposed, many questions have been raised about its potential impacts. Opponents, led by anti-environment republicans and timber industry representatives, have leveled many harsh and groundless criticisms at President Clinton and the Forest Service. These criticisms are a transparent attempt to stall, and ultimately kill this historic initiative.
Thirty years of local planning efforts, wilderness debates, appeals, lawsuits, and injunctions have not solved the issue of long-term management of some 54 million acres of roadless areas in our national forest system. As a result, the Forest Service has embarked on a national initiative to determine how the American people want these lands managed. It's an historic initiative, and one that the American people richly deserve.
Below are clarifications and answers to some of the most common criticisms and misunderstandings about roadless area policy.
Contention: The roadless policy is being rammed through, without allowing the public to participate or comment.
The issue of how to manage roadless areas has been fiercely debated for some 30 years and has been the subject of nearly non-stop debate among environmental groups, Members of Congress, the Forest Service, timber, mining, and oil corporations, and the public at large.
In the past two years, more than a half million citizens have written to the Administration supporting roadless-area protection, and there have been votes in Congress on both roadless area protection and the funding of road construction in the National Forests. In 1998, the Forest Service received more than 80,000 comments during the official comment period on the agency's temporary suspension of road construction in roadless areas. The large majority of these comments specifically requested that the Forest Service develop a long-term policy to protect roadless areas .
Last October, President Clinton directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Forest Service to undertake a rule-making process that would culminate in the protection of national forest roadless areas. The Forest Service has since initiated an open and public rule-making process to determine whether and specifically how roadless areas in the national forests should be protected. Last year, during the preliminary stage of the rule-making, known as "scoping," the Forest Service held 185 hearings and public meetings on the initiative and received 500,000 comments. This represents far greater public input than in any other previous Forest Service rule-making. The agency has committed to doing another series of meetings and hearings across the nation in the spring to allow the public to review the Draft Environmental Impact Statement and policy alternatives and to offer comment.
Contention: The President does not have the legal authority to protect these areas. It requires an act of Congress.
TRUTH: An act of Congress is required in order to include public lands in the National Wilderness Preservation System. That is not what is being proposed. The Administration's approach is based on legal authorities already granted to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service by Congress. The process is being carried out under existing legal authorities such as those provided through original grant from Congress in 1897, the National Forest Management Act (NMFA), the Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act (RPA), and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and is involving the public in an open, participatory process . Under the Administrative Procedures Act, the administration have broad authority to write rules, as is being proposed here, consistent with statutory mandate.
Contention: This proposal is going to shut down the forest and deny access to the public.
TRUTH: This initiative will only prohibit new roads in currently unroaded areas. The roadless policy will not close any existing roads or trails, nor will it block legal access to private or state land . National Forest roads will continue to provide access to hunters, anglers, hikers, and others. In fact, protecting roadless areas from logging and motorized use will help maintain and possibly improve recreation on national forests. This is important in view of the fact that these activities are gaining in popularity at the same time that development of open spaces and wildlands is increasing. According to the Forest Service, over the past 33 years, backcountry and wilderness visitation on National Forests grew from 4 million recreation visitor days to more than 14 million a 250% jump.
Motorized recreation, such as dirt-bikes and snowmobiles, will continue on the roads and trails in the National Forest system where those activities are currently allowed. Allowing dirt bikes and other off- road vehicles to use trails in roadless areas has led to increased conflicts between non-motorized users of roadless areas who seek solitude and remoteness from the noise and exhaust of motor vehicles. Protecting roadless lands from road construction would not eliminate off-road vehicles on trails in these areas. The Forest Service may prevent off-road vehicle use altogether in some roadless areas, but those decisions will be made on a forest-by forest basis through the forest planning process.
There are already over 380,000 miles of official roads on the National Forests, enough to circle the earth 16 times. Due to funding restrictions, the Forest Service reports that 80% of the current roads and bridges are not maintained to environmental and safety standards. Many of these roads are crumbling into streams, jeopardizing safe public access, and degrading water quality and aquatic habitat. The real threat to access on the National Forests is the inability to maintain the existing transportation infrastructure.
Contention: Roads and logging are necessary in roadless areas in order to minimize risks of catastrophic wildfire and bug infestations.
For years scientific studies have debunked the myth that protection of roadless areas will result in increased risk of frequent, high-intensity wildfires and widespread insect infestations that will destroy forested wildlands. Yet these unproven arguments are still used by those who oppose protection of roadless areas.
§Of the estimated 24 million acres that the Forest Service has identified as having a high risk from wildfires, only 3 million are in roadless areas.
§The Forest Service reported in 1996 and 1998 that 90% of wildfires on national forests are caused by humans. This occurs through operation of motorized vehicles and logging equipment as well as inadequate dousing of campfires, careless smoking, and arson. Allowing logging and road-building in currently untouched forests increases, not decreases, fire risk.
·Roadless areas have been least affected by a century of fire suppression by the Forest Service. Continual fire suppression over a long period of time changes forests in ways that make them more vulnerable to high-intensity fires
·Because they have not been heavily managed and developed, roadless areas have generally experienced the least ecological damage and thus are least in need of restoration .
It is past and present management practices that have caused "forest health" problems.
·Roads and industrial activity contribute to damage to watersheds and fish habitat, open the forests to invasions of non-native plant species, and provide access for poachers. Stumps and debris created during logging promote disease and therefore increase trees' susceptibility to beetle outbreaks.
Contention: The Forest Service did not consult with any interested groups before announcing the roadless protection proposal.
TRUTH: Long-term protection of roadless areas has been a central focus of the Forest Service's policy agenda for several years. Interested parties have had every opportunity to comment and to seek consultation with the Forest Service regarding the roadless area issue.
This process has actually been underway since November, 1997 when President Clinton directed the U.S. Forest Service to begin examining its policies on roadbuilding in the national forests. In January 1998, the agency proposed to temporarily suspend road construction in certain unroaded areas; and provided advance notice of revisions to the regulations governing the management of the National Forest System Transportation System. The Forest Service stated that the temporary moratorium would be in place to allow the agency to develop a long-term policy that would govern how and whether roads ought to be built in roadless areas. The agency solicited public comment on the road-building moratorium in 1998 and most of those who commented urged the Forest Service to adopt a policy permanently protecting roadless areas. Many who now claim the Forest Service did not consult with them on this issue actually submitted comments to them during this process.
The Forest Service roadless area process is a logical, legal next step that clearly addresses an issue of great importance to the American people. Prior to President Clinton's announcement last October, the Administration heard from more than a quarter of a million citizens who sent emails and postcards, more than 300 religious leaders, more than 200 scientists, 175 members of Congress, and 600 conservation organizations. Given this level of public debate and citizen involvement, it is clear that the public has been fully engaged in this process from the beginning.
Contention: Eliminating logging and mining in these areas will hurt the economy.
TRUTH: The national forests provide barely 5 percent of the nation's total wood supply. Of that, the Forest Service estimates that less than 5 percent is expected to come from roadless areas. A permanent ban on roadbuilding and logging would have a minimal adverse impact on timber industry jobs.
From an economic standpoint, the most valuable assets of the national forests include: opportunities for outdoor recreation like hunting, hiking, camping, fishing, or birdwatching; supplies of clean water for about 60 million Americans in 3,400 communities; and as a home for many diverse types of plant and animal life.
In 1997, national forests accommodated more than 40 percent of all outdoor recreation use on public lands in the United States, making it the single largest source of outdoor recreation in the nation, according to the Forest Service.
The agency estimates that economic activity associated with national forest recreation, including wildlife and fish related activities such as viewing, hunting, and fishing, generates $110.7 billion annually. But logging on national forests, which actually loses money for the taxpayers, will generate just $5 billion in economic activity.
Contention: Regional economies depend on public lands logging.
TRUTH: No regional economies depend upon public lands logging. In the states with the most federal commercial timberland, logging and wood products employment represents a minor share of overall jobs. In Idaho, for example, only 3 percent of all jobs are related to wood products. And this is counting logging and manufacturing of all paper and wood products, regardless of whether these products originated from public land timber sales or not. In Oregon, only 4.6 percent of all jobs are related to wood products. In Colorado, where federal forests account for a large share of the land base, only 1/2 of 1 percent of employment is related to wood products.
Contention: Roadless protection is only supported by urban residents, and not by those living in the affected areas.
TRUTH: Americans living in the states that would have the most roadless acres protected overwhelmingly support the roadless proposal. Surveys were conducted by independent pollsters in a number of states, including California, New Mexico, Colorado, Tennessee, Idaho, Montana, Washington and Oregon. In Colorado, for example, 75% of voters support the roadless proposal. When Coloradans were told exactly how much National Forest land in Colorado - 5 million acres - would be affected, support increased to 78% with just 16% opposed . In California, support never drops below 65% in any part of the state , and in New Mexico, support is at least 67% in every part of the state . 83% of Republicans in Oregon support the roadless initiative, as do 69% of people who hunt or fish . In Washington state, 70% of rural voters support the plan .
For footnotes and pictures, download the PDF of this article.