Man in canoe photo

  the policy

loopholes and exemptions:
losing our heritage forests


Why should the protection of roadless areas matter to the American people?

Despite what most people believe, barely 18% of our national forests are protected. More than half of national forest lands in the United States have already been impacted by decades of clearcut logging, oil and gas development, mining, and other industrial uses. And these lands are crisscrossed with more than 380,000 miles of roads, most of which are built to facilitate logging.

The 31% of national forest lands that still remain pristine and wild, and yet unprotected, make up America's Heritage Forests. Our Heritage Forests consist of all the unprotected roadless areas 1,000 acres and larger managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

These wild areas are irreplaceable national assets - not just for their beauty, but also for the clean water supplies they protect, the wildlife habitat they provide, and the biodiversity they foster. The economic value of roadless areas as recreational assets far outweigh their value for timber production. Most importantly, we have a responsibility to protect these wild and open spaces as an enduring legacy for future generations.


On March 1, 1999, United States Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck implemented a long-awaited temporary road-building moratorium in some roadless areas on national forest lands. This moratorium is the first step in the agency's roadless area policy-making effort that will culminate in a final roads policy due around October 2000. Although the direction originally set forth by President Clinton was for the agency to protect roadless areas, the Forest Service is instead crafting a transportation policy, which unfortunately will not ensure protection of our national roadless wild lands, as this report documents.

The Heritage Forests Campaign, working with local conservation organizations across the country, has identified dozens of activities that are continuing both in areas exempted from and covered by the moratorium. This report documents the numerous types of activities that, even during the moratorium, will continue in roadless areas. This is not intended to be an exhaustive review of all threats to national forest roadless areas, but rather is meant to be exemplary of the problems inherent in the moratorium and in Forest Service policies on roadless areas.

The roadless area threats in this report are divided into two categories: Exemptions and Loopholes.


The Forest Service's road-building moratorium explicitly exempts official inventoried roadless areas in all national forests that have revised forest plans or that are covered by the Northwest Forest Plan, which arose from President Clinton's 1993 Forest Summit. As a result, about 15 million acres get no reprieve from road-building or logging (including some forests in Alaska, the Northwest, Colorado, Idaho, California, Texas, Virginia and South Dakota). The Forest Service-inventoried roadless areas were exempted ostensibly because these newly revised forest plans are considered to be more environmentally sensitive than their predecessors. In reality, however, these forests continue to be eroded by clearcutting, new ski area development, mineral development, and other destructive activities.


In the areas included in the moratorium, this report documents that the following activities will continue to occur: clearcutting; helicopter logging; development of off-highway vehicle trails; and ski area expansion. Clearly, stopping the construction of new roads does not protect roadless areas. Equally troubling is the fact that numerous roadless area projects, including roadless area logging in Colorado and mineral development in the Greater Yellowstone region, are being lined up for implementation upon termination of the 18-month moratorium on road building.

Another loophole highlighted in this report is the exclusion of many "non-inventoried" roadless areas. 10 to 15 million acres of roadless areas have never been officially included in the Forest Service's roadless area inventories. Because the Forest Service arbitrarily limited its roadless area survey to areas larger than 5,000 acres in the west and excluded areas near the "sight and sound" boundaries of communities, thousands of ecologically important areas between 1,000 and 5,000 acres or more have never been formally recognized for their roadless characteristics.

Policy Gone Awry?

In November 1997, President Clinton announced that the Forest Service was developing a science-based policy for the management of roadless areas and that these places are important to protect because of the recreational opportunities they provide as well as their habitat and watershed values. Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck responded two months later with a two step transportation policy development process. The Forest Service is currently developing a policy that will be used to guide future road development and removal. The premise of the Chief's effort is that a transportation policy can effectively protect roadless areas.

This premise, however, is misguided. This report illustrates that even roadless areas that are given protection under the road-building moratorium are still open to logging, mining, off-road vehicle use, and other destructive activities.

There has been a strong recognition within the Administration that wild places should be protected. The current path the Forest Service is on, however, will leave much of our scenic, unprotected forest wilderness vulnerable to chainsaws, drill rigs, and even new roads. The Administration must ensure that the Forest Service steers a course toward a policy of real protection for our remaining roadless areas.
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