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Threats to the Conservation of the Last Wild Places in Our National Forests

Attempts to undermine a popular and balanced policy now threaten the last, scarce, wild areas in America's National Forests. After the most extensive public rulemaking ever, encompassing more than 600 public hearings and 1.6 million comments, the U.S. Forest Service issued the Roadless Area Conservation Policy on January 5, 2001. The Roadless Area Conservation Policy protects the last remaining wild National Forest lands from road construction and most logging, except when needed to restore ecological integrity, protect habitat for endangered species, or reduce threats of catastrophic wildfire.

While protecting 30 percent of our National Forest lands without erecting a single "no-trespassing" sign, the new policy allows more than half of the nation's National Forests to remain open to drilling, mining, and logging.

Even though this balanced conservation plan is now the law of the land, it faces attacks from three distinct sources. Equally troubling is that at least two of these challenges can be used to quietly undo the rule with little or no public involvement.

  1. Congress

    1. Congressional Review Act/CRA Opponents of a balanced approach to managing National Forests have said they intend to try to overturn the Roadless Area Conservation Policy under provisions of the Congressional Review Act (CRA). The CRA was passed in 1996, during a broad effort to roll back environmental, health, and safety regulations. Under the CRA, Congress can overturn a major regulatory rule by simple majority in both houses, but must do so within 60 legislative days after the rule takes effect. (The CRA is sometimes incorrectly referred to as the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act, or SBREFA)

    2. Budget As part of either its budget process or energy legislation, Congress could choose to assume new revenues from increased oil and natural gas exploration on federal lands now protected by the new Forest Service policy. This would result in a de facto reversal of all or part of the policy, with no public input or opportunity for a clear vote on an important issue. This could occur even though it would normally take 10 years to produce fuel, and despite estimates by the U.S. Department of Energy of a 95 percent chance that no more than a two-month supply of natural gas for the nation could be recovered from these lands.

    3. Appropriations There is nothing to stop a member of Congress from inserting a rider in the annual appropriations bill for the U.S. Forest Service, exempting one or more National Forests from inclusion in the roadless policy, on whatever grounds they choose to articulate. Last year, Senator Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) proposed to exempt the White Mountain National Forest from the roadless policy using exactly this process. He was dissuaded from doing this by a veto threat from the Clinton administration. This year, last-minute, closed-door compromises over appropriations bills could endanger the wild forest conservation policy.

  2. Courts

    Lawsuits challenging all or part of the rule have been filed by conservative property rights groups, several timber companies, and the governors of Alaska and Idaho, who oppose the rule in support of timber interests in their states.

    Lawsuits challenging the policy have been filed by:

    • The Boise Cascade Corp., a top purchaser of timber from National Forests;
    • The Mountain States Legal Foundation, a conservative property-rights group;
    • The Blue Ribbon Coalition, an organization that advocates off-road vehicle usage, which is challenging the new Forest Service rule even though it does not restrict such activity; and
    • The state of Idaho and its governor, two Idaho counties, and the governor of Alaska.

    In any one of these lawsuits, the Roadless Area Conservation Policy could be undone by a settlement in which Attorney General John Ashcroft and the Justice Department, away from public scrutiny, sabotage the rule by burying it in the legal limbo of indefinite review and impact studies. Meanwhile, wild National Forest lands could be open to logging, mining, and drilling.

  3. Administration

    The Bush administration has just completed another comment period in order to further delay implementation. The administration, catering to corporate special interests, has repeatedly signaled an intention to roll back the roadless rule despite overwhelming public support for the policy. Further delay tactics by the administration could allow those pursuing action through the courts and Congress more time to marshal their forces to overturn this balanced approach to conserving our last remaining wild National Forest lands.

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