Big Win for Roadless Forests
by Rolf Skar
August 5, 2009
Today a federal court reinstated the Roadless Area Conservation Rule. This means about 40 million acres of pristine roadless forests are protected from destructive logging and road-building. Greenpeace was part of the successful lawsuit supported by many conservation groups and several western states.
This is great news, but it is not the end of the story. Because of a complicated legal and administrative history, the roadless wildlands in America’s largest forest – the Tongass in Alaska – and National Forests in Idaho, do not benefit from this court decision.
Created in 2001 by the Clinton administration, the “Roadless Rule” is extraordinarily popular with Americans. Support for roadless conservation isn’t a partisan issue: polls have shown Americans from all backgrounds supported the protection of our last best wildlands. And, as the Roadless Rule was being created, they spoke up in record numbers in favor of it. But, it didn’t take long for the Bush administration to join with industry groups to attack the rule and attempt to make it a divisive political issue.
In 2005, the Bush administration replaced the Roadless Rule with a watered-down version requiring governors to “petition” the federal government to protect Roadless Areas in their state. This allowed partisan state governors to tamper with protections for public lands belonging to all Americans. In addition, pro-roadless area governors were saddled with new red-tape and expensive bureaucratic requirements to essentially beg for forest protection. Even if a governor filed a petition, the Bush administration – and the former timber industry lobbyist overseeing the Forest Service – reserved the right to turn down requests for roadless area protection.
The Bush administration did this switch without conducting required environmental review. They claimed it was merely a “paper” exercise that had no effect on endangered species or the habitat they depend on. The three judge panel today slapped down that ridiculous assertion, saying they had violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.
To me, this is more than an abstract legal case. I watched roadless forests in Oregon’s North and South Kalmiopsis Roadless Areas fall to the saw during the Bush administration. When you feel the earth shake when a huge tree hits the ground, and see messy stump-fields replace beautiful wildlands it’s hard not to be moved. These forests are real places important for clean water, wildlife, recreation and local communities. And they deserve real, permanent protection.
I’ve witnessed brave activists stand in the way of roadless area logging, putting their bodies and freedoms on the line to call out Bush admininstration policies that turned out to be illegal. Dangling from bridges and blocking logging roads, their courage moved faster than the courts. In the meantime, forests that should have remained standing fell to the saw.
Now the big question is: what will Obama do? While candidate Obama made commitments to “support and defend” roadless forests, his administration has a mixed record. Earlier this year, the administration declared a one-year “timeout” on destructive activities in roadless areas, barring logging and roadbuilding without case-by-case approval by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.
Unfortunately, Vilsack recently used his power to green-light the Orion timber sale in the Tongass National Forest. That logging project includes road-building and clearcutting in temperate rainforests bordering the Misty Fjords National Monument. While chainsaws move in on the rainforest, Greenpeace is challenging the project in court.
Enough already. It is clear Americans want their last roadless forests protected, and it is clear these pristine forests need help to keep them standing for future generations. Now is the time for Obama to put petty politics and court battles behind us and ensure protection for all of America’s Roadless Areas.