The Bush administration proposed a new plan Monday to open up national forests to more logging, confirming a draft plan that was published two weeks ago.
Under the plan, which Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced at the Idaho Capitol, governors would have to petition the federal government to block road-building needed for logging in remote areas of national forests.
The rule replaces one that was adopted by the Clinton administration and is still under challenge in federal court. It covers about 58 million of the 191 million acres of national forest nationwide.
Idaho was one of the first states to challenge the so-called roadless rule in federal court.
“Strong state and federal cooperation in the management of roadless areas will foster improved local involvement in the process,” Veneman said.
For nearly two years, the Bush administration has been weighing changes to the roadless rule, which blocks road construction in nearly one-third of national forests to prevent logging and other commercial activity.
Officials call the new roadless policy a common-sense plan that protects backcountry woods while advancing a partnership with the nation’s governors, particularly in the West.
Veneman, whose department includes the Forest Service, made the announcement joined by Gov. Dirk Kempthorne and U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, both Republicans.
“There are areas in Idaho that should appropriately be designated as roadless,” said Kempthorne. “I don’t dispute that. But there is a right way and a wrong way. Today the Bush administration is doing it the right way.”
Jim Riley of the Intermountain Forest Association, which represents the timber industry, also embraced the proposal, maintaining that “these decisions are far better made by local folks than through broad national policy.”
But New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, said the Forest Service was “walking away from environmental protection.”
Richardson said he would ask that all 1.1 million acres of roadless land in his state remain protected and planned to urge other western governors to do the same.
Environmental groups were also critical. “This is a roadblock to roadless protection,” said Amy Mall, a spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The administration is not concerned about states’ rights.”
“To take it down to the state level like this really undermines having a national forest system,” added Craig Gehrke, spokesman for The Wilderness Society. “You don’t have state Social Security plans. Why should we have state roadless plans?”
Philip Clapp, president of National Environmental Trust, called the proposal “the biggest single giveaway to the timber industry in the history of the national forests.”
Old rule restored for now
As part of the plan, the administration said it would reinstate an interim rule for the next 18 months, requiring that Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth approve any new road construction in previously protected areas.
The administration had let the interim rule lapse last year as it considered a permanent rule to replace the Clinton policy.
As a practical matter, officials said, few, if any, changes in roadless policy are expected during the next 18 months. They noted that Bosworth did not approve a single new road during the more than two years the interim directive was in place.
Environmentalists howled when the draft rule was made public earlier this month. Without a national policy against road construction, they said, forest management would revert to individual forest plans that in many cases allowed roads and other development on most of the 58 million acres that are now protected by the roadless rule.
Environmentalists say it is unlikely that governors in pro-logging states, such as Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and Utah, will seek to keep the roadless rule in effect. Kempthorne is among several Republican governors in the West who have strongly criticized the rule, calling it an unnecessary restriction that has locked up millions of acres from logging and other economic development.
Citing such complaints, the Bush administration said last year that it would develop a plan to allow governors to seek exemptions from the roadless rule. The latest plan would turn that on its head by requiring governors to petition the Agriculture Department if they wanted to protect against timbering in their states.
The Clinton administration adopted the roadless rule during its final days in office in January 2001, calling it important protection for backcountry forests. Environmentalists hailed that action, but the timber industry and some Republican lawmakers have criticized it as overly intrusive and even dangerous, saying it has left millions of acres exposed to catastrophic wildfires.
Federal judges have twice struck down the three-year-old rule, most recently in a Wyoming case decided in July 2003. That case, which environmentalists have appealed, is one of several pending legal challenges, complicating efforts to issue a new plan.
The new plan will be published in the Federal Register this week, with a 60-day comment period extending into September.
Background on the roadless rule is online at www.roadless.fs.fed.us.