Government suspends forest road-building

Image: a road winds through Angeles National Forest
Motorcyclists take on the stretch of re-opened California Highway 2 near Wrightwood, Calif., in the Angeles National Forest Wednesday, May 20. A nine-mile span of the highway was closed for more than five years after rockslides damaged the roadway. Eric Reed / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Obama administration is calling for a one-year moratorium on road-building and development on about 50 million acres of remote national forests.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack issued a directive Thursday reinstating for one year most of a Clinton-era ban against new road construction and development in national forests. The 2001 rule banned road building and logging in more than 58 million acres of remote national forests, mostly in the West.

Conflicting court decisions issued since then have left the rule's legal status in doubt.

Vilsack said his interim directive will provide clarity that should help protect national forests until the Obama administration develops a long-term roadless policy. The directive gives Vilsack sole decision-making authority over all proposed forest management or road construction projects in designated roadless areas in all states except Idaho.

Two states developed their own rules
Idaho was one of two states that developed its own roadless rule under a Bush administration policy giving states more control over whether and how to block road-building in remote forests. More than 9 million acres of roadless national forests in Idaho will remain under state control, Vilsack said.

Colorado was the only other state to write its own roadless plan. The state has been working with the Forest Service to clarify language and hoped to complete work in the next few months on a plan to protect more than 4 million acres of roadless national forests. But Vilsack's directive overturns the state's efforts, officials said.

Confusion over the roadless rule extended beyond Colorado and Idaho.

In alternately upholding and overturning portions of the 2001 Clinton rule, federal courts "have created confusion and made it difficult for the U.S. Forest Service to do its job," Vilsack said in a statement. The new directive will ensure that the administration can consider activities in the affected areas while long-term roadless policy is developed and court cases move forward, Vilsack said.

'Needed and welcome'
The directive's most immediate effect is to halt plans for road construction in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. About 35 miles of roads are proposed as part of several timber sales pending in the Tongass, the nation's largest federal forest.

Obama's proposed "time out" is "needed and welcome," said Trip Van Noppen, president of the environmental group Earthjustice. "Roadless areas are important as the last remaining pristine areas in America, and they are a great bulwark in how we will protect our environment in an era of climate change."