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information: white paper

"There are few more irreparable marks we can leave on the land than to build a road."
         -- Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck

I. The National Forest System

The U.S. Forest Service (part of the Department of Agriculture) manages 192 million acres of public forestlands. Of that:

  • 52%, or more than 90 million acres, has been impacted by decades of timber cutting, oil and gas development, mining, and other industrial uses. This 90 million acres is crisscrossed with 377,810 miles of official roads -- enough to circle the Earth 15 times -- and another 60,000 miles of roadway worn by off-road vehicle travel, temporary logging projects and old mining road usage.
  • Barely 18%, or less than 35 million acres, is permanently protected as wilderness;
  • The remaining 30% of public forestlands in America, or about 60 million acres, are currently wild but unprotected. These forestlands make up "America's Heritage Forests," the National Forest system's last untouched scenic wilderness.
Such remaining wild forests serve a variety of important public values. They are sources of our cleanest drinking water and some of our most important fish and wildlife habitat. They are a haven for the human spirit and a wellspring from which future wilderness will gain strength. For these reasons, many conservationists have made the protection of our Americaâs Heritage Forests their highest priority.  II. The Moratorium and Final Policy

In November, 1997, President Clinton recognized the importance of national forest roadless areas for their recreational, habitat, and watershed values. To protect these irreplaceable values, President Clinton promised that the Forest Service would develop a policy for the protection of these important areas through science, not politics.

Responding to the President, the Forest Service has implemented an 18-month moratorium on the construction of new roads in some roadless areas on National Forest lands. This is meant to be the first phase of Administration plans for a comprehensive Forest Service transportation policy. However, the interim moratorium halts new road construction only temporarily, and on less than 60% of roadless areas, and it does not prohibit logging, mineral development, and other destructive activities in those areas.

The temporary moratorium will lapse when the Forest Service completes a final policy which, unfortunately under current plans, will fail to respond to the Presidentâs interest in roadless area protection. Currently, the final policy is focussing exclusively on issues of road construction, maintenance, and decommissioning, rather than addressing the Presidentâs commitment to protect roadless areas.

III. Forest Roads, Taxpayer Subsidies

Protection of this scenic wilderness is fought out each year in the Interior Appropriations spending process, during which time Congress intensively debates funds for road building within the Forest Service's $3.3 billion budget.

Dirt roads, carved with bulldozers through what had been wilderness, wreak havoc on wildland ecosystems. They fragment habitat for endangered wildlife such as grizzly bears and lynx. They introduce exotic pests, pathogens and plants.

Such roads often become deeply eroded. This causes landslides, fills streams with tons of sediment per mile, chokes fish and other aquatic species, and increases toxic pollution from runoff. In any given year 60% of Forest Service roads are not maintained. Agriculture Undersecretary Jim Lyons in 1997 declared that "Our no.1 water quality problem in the national forest system is roads."

And forest roads carve up the wilderness, increasing noise pollution and access for poaching, off-road vehicles and other motorized use. Associated logging and mining also have significant impacts on environmental values. Logging destroys habitat for forest-dwelling species and strips surface cover, causing sedimentation in streams. Mining activities similarly denude surface cover and frequently contribute toxic substances to streams and other water bodies. Both activities have profound visual impacts and render useless the forestâs recreational values.

In recent years, the conservation community has played an increasingly important role in reducing the Forest Service roads budget through the appropriations process. In 1997 efforts to dramatically reduce the agency's roads budget came closer than ever to succeeding, failing in both chambers by just two votes.

The environmental damage and economic waste caused by the overall federal timber program has reached monumental proportions. For most of the current decade, the federal timber program has lost hundreds of millions of dollars each year. The General Accounting Office reports that the Forest Service timber program lost $995 million from 1992-1994 alone. Even the Forest Service admitted an $88 million loss for FY97. The federal treasury collected less than 10% of the $1.85 billion worth of timber sold over the last three years by the US Forest Service to private loggers, according to a General Accounting Office audit.

IV. Science and Economic Values

In December 1997, 169 scientists from across the United States wrote to President Clinton in support of protection for the last remaining roadless areas larger than 1,000 acres in the National Forest System. Their letter reflects a growing scientific consensus that roadless areas play a vital role in conserving biological diversity and providing high quality water:

"Roadless areas are critical because they represent the least human-disturbed habitats in an almost universally disturbed landscape. As such they act as de facto refuges for numerous sensitive plant and animal species, reservoirs of genetic material, and benchmarks for experimental restoration efforts in intensively managed landscapes. Streams flowing out of roadless areas typically provide supplies of the purest water untainted by chemical pollutants and within the cool temperature range required by many native fish species."

Economists, too, have protested the below-cost sale of a public resource, which is often then harvested in an unsustainable manner. A January 1998 letter to President Clinton signed by 31 respected economists urged recognition of values other than extractive resources. These other values "constitute a large portion of the total economic value of public forestlands" and yet are fragile enough that road construction projects pose "serious threats to many of the economic goods and services that flow from public forestlands."

Nationwide, the value of recreation in the National Forest wilderness and primitive areas ($594 million in FY 1996) now exceeds the value of timber logging ($544 million), according to the Forest Service's 1996 annual report.

Roads also lose money for the public more directly, since sales of timber to private logging companies fail to cover the costs of the roads built at public expense to reach the timber. The Wilderness Society estimated the annual shortfall at $204 million in 1996.

V. An Opportunity for Change

Perhaps at no other time in the Forest Service's history has the stage been so well set for a visionary roadless area protection policy.

President Clinton promised action in his statement accompanying the signing of the Interior Appropriations legislation on November 14, 1997:

"My Administration has moved away from past policies that primarily emphasized timber cutting at the expense of the environment and blatantly violated environmental laws. This Administration stands for protecting the environment as well as jobs.

"...the Forest Service is developing a scientifically based policy for managing roadless areas in our national forests. These last remaining wild areas are precious to millions of Americans and key to protecting clean water and abundant wildlife habitat, and providing recreation opportunities. These unspoiled places must be managed through science, not politics."

Vice President Gore has written, campaigned, and lectured against the "short-term thinking and misguided development" that destroys precious natural resources like forests. In Boston on October 28, 1995, he told the Society of Environmental Journalists, "I'm reminded of something Thoreau once wrote: ÎThank God they cannot cut down the clouds!â" And on January 27, 1996 he told the New Hampshire Wildlife Federation:
"Those of us who inhabit this planet are not the owners of it and nor are we entitled to exploit it at will. We are stewards of God's creation. The earth belongs to God in my view. Our every action ought to honor that ideal. In conclusion, I believe deeply that our air and water and land are too magnificent to be calculated merely in dollars and cents or political debits and credits."
In a July 1, 1998 memo to his employees, forward thinking Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck said:
"(O)ur proposed suspension of road construction in roadless areas will help us develop not only a science-based long-term road policy, but one that also reflects the values that society places on wild places, old growth, wilderness, and on intact and unfragmented landscapes... Our wilderness portfolio must embody a broader array of lands -- from prairie to old growth. As world leaders in wilderness management, we should be looking to the future to better manage existing, and identify potential new, wilderness and other wild lands."
The public strongly believes wild forest areas deserve protection. A nationwide survey, conducted by well-known pollster Celinda Lake for The Wilderness Society in the summer of 1998, found that 65% of voters support a proposal to "stop all timber cutting in roadless wild forest areas." Support was bipartisan: 68% of Democrats, 60% of Independents and 64% of Republicans supported the moratorium. And it was consistent: 69% of respondents in the Northeast, 61% in the Midwest, 64% in the South and 66% in the West wanted logging in wild public forests to stop.

Members of Congress from the Pacific Northwest and the southeastern States wrote bipartisan letters to the Administration asking them to move forward with a comprehensive policy to protect municipal drinking water supplies and large roadless areas from the degradation of road building and logging. The Administration took the close votes in both the House and Senate as a signal to develop policies to defuse the contentiousness of the forest roads budget.

The Administration wants to develop a comprehensive policy to stop potential budget reductions by Congress. However, while President Clinton extolled all roadless areas, the Forest Service has limited the scope of the interim policy to just some of them. What is most notable about their interim moratorium is that it has loopholes the size of logging trucks.

VI.  Loopholes in the Moratorium

The Forest Service's "interim" policy explicitly exempts inventoried roadless areas in all National Forests that have revised forest plans or are covered by the Northwest Forest Plan (also known as "Option 9," which arose from President Clinton's 1993 Forest Summit). As a result, about 15 million acres get no reprieve (including land in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, the Northwest, Colorado, Idaho, California, Texas, Virginia and South Dakota). These inventoried roadless lands in the National Forest System contain some of our most important scenic areas, fish and wildlife habitat and sources of clean drinking water for downstream communities.

Another 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. The moratorium will cover only a small number of these ecologically important areas that happen to occur next to congressionally designated wilderness, wild rivers, or 5,000 acre roadless tracts in other federal ownership. The failure to include a broader range of these smaller parcels is especially a problem in the east. Additionally, many larger roadless areas that should have been included in the Forest Serviceâs inventories were ignored by the agency because of those areasâ competing timber and other commodity development values.

Finally, the interim policy fails to halt ecological degradation even in roadless areas in the national forests that are included in the interim policy. It allows logging to continue in roadless areas through helicopter timber sales and ground-based logging techniques that do not require roads. The interim policy also does not protect roadless areas from oil and gas development activities.

The moratorium has been described by the agency as a "time-out" until a final policy can be developed on the forest roads issue. The Forest Service has taken the position that the final policy should be limited to only four components:

1.  Help the agency to build more "environmentally friendly" roads in the future;
2.  Develop a system for road removal;
3.  Help it determine how to upgrade roads where necessary; and,
4.  Settle the issue in Congress by finding "new and dependable funding" for roads.

If the eventual policy is limited only to these four components, it will be a lost opportunity. None of these components addresses comprehensive protection of our remaining untouched scenic forest wilderness. The four components do not address the need for a prohibition of new roads, logging, mineral development and off road vehicle use into these last unprotected wild forests. The concept of "environmentally-friendly roads" is internally inconsistent. We would lose an opportunity to protect Americaâs Heritage Forests.

The moratorium is expected to expire in October 2000.

VII. Permanent Protection: An Historic Opportunity

Americans care deeply about protecting our scenic Heritage Forests. We are on the verge of forever losing our scenic, unprotected forest wilderness to irresponsible development. President Clinton has said that these areas should be managed by science, not politics and he is right.

The real test for the Administration is the development of the final policy. Right now, the Forest Service appears headed in the wrong direction. If the policy becomes nothing more than a new way to build roads in our last unspoiled forests instead of permanently protecting them, it will be a failure.

President Clinton and Vice-President Gore have an historic opportunity to protect these special places as a legacy for our children. They must ensure that the Forest Service uses science, not politics to develop the final policy. They must weigh in to make certain the policy being developed by the Forest Service over the next 18 months will permanently protect all roadless areas of 1,000 acres or more from all destructive activities.

VII. Conclusion

The Clinton-Gore Administration should adopt a policy that protects roadless areas of 1,000 acres and larger on all National Forests, with no regional exemptions, from logging, road building, off-road vehicles, mining and other commodity development. With most of our wild forests already destroyed, we can ill afford to lose any more of Americaâs Heritage Forests. With the dawning of the new millennium, this is the least we can do for future generations.

Defenders of Wildlife
Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund
National Audubon Society
The Wilderness Society
National Resources Defense Council
National Environmental Trust
U.S. Public Interest Research Group
Greater Yellowstone Coalition
Idaho Conservation League
Kettle Range Conservation Group
Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition
South East Alaska Coalition
Southern Environmental Law Center
Oregon Natural Resources Council
Southwest Forest Alliance
Wildlands CPR

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