Roadless, once again

By reinstating the forest Roadless Rule, the judiciary brings forest policy in line with public sentiment once more.

by Holly Lahd

Conservationists haven’t had much good news to celebrate in the past few years, but last week they were given a reason to cheer when a federal judge reinstated the Forest Service’s Roadless Rule, a forest policy enacted by the Clinton administration in 2001.

In the ruling, U.S. District Judge Judy Laporte cited the Bush administration’s failure to incorporate the provisions of the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act when it changed the Roadless Rule. The reinstatement of this rule protects the remaining roadless forest land across the country and is a shining example of a science-oriented and public-driven forest policy.

It’s refreshing to see a right step taken in preserving these lands for future generations and it’s personally rewarding to have a win once in a while.

The Roadless Rule prohibits construction of new roads in areas designated roadless by guidelines determined by the U.S. Forest Service. These roadless areas have remained untouched by the effects of timber harvesting and many other human activities.

Many roadless areas act as buffer zones for unique ecological areas, such as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota. Minnesota has 62,000 acres that have been designated roadless by the Forest Service and many of these acres are around the boundary of the area. Nationwide, the rule affects 58.5 million acres, many of them in Alaska.

This represents about 2 percent of our nation’s land area, or 31 percent of our national forests.

In U.S. forests, road building is essential for many timber harvesting practices. The Forest Service constructs roads at the taxpayers’ expense for logging groups to harvest the timber, and hence, the profits. The cost of these roads often is written off as a necessity for the suppression of fires in national forests, an activity that is extremely expensive and has questionable benefits.

The process of building roads can be destructive to the quality of the forest, leading to forest fragmentation and erosion problems. In short, forest road construction creates long-term ecological devastation by promoting short-term economic gain.

The original Roadless Rule provides a national standard for protecting these lands and had input from a variety of sources in its formation. Several federal agencies and 180 American Indian groups were consulted in the formation of the policy. It took more than two years for Clinton administration officials and forestry experts to craft the policy.

When President George W. Bush took office in 2001, he stated his intentions to change the Roadless Rule. Instead of creating a new federal forest policy to protect these areas, the revised rule puts the burden of deciding which roadless areas are important enough to protect to state governors.

In turn, state governors must petition the Forest Service to preserve the roadless character of the lands they select through a cumbersome filing process.

Before my first semester at the University, I interned with the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, a non-profit organization that works to protect the wilderness character of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. That was summer 2004, when the Bush administration first announced the intended change to the rule.

As an intern, I saw firsthand how an advocacy organization like the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness mobilized volunteers to demonstrate the overwhelming public support behind the policy.

Later that year, during my first semester at the University, I talked with students on the Washington Avenue Bridge about the Roadless Rule. When I told students that it protects the remaining 62,000 acres of roadless areas left in Minnesota, the majority of people that took the time to find out about the issue signed a petition postcard to the Forest Service in support of upholding the rule. In fact, over 31,000 comments to the Forest Service were submitted by Minnesotans and over 1.8 million public comments were submitted nationally.

Across the country, the Forest Service held 600 public hearings, including one I attended in St. Paul where citizens overwhelmingly voiced their support of the original Roadless Rule.

In Minnesota we have a legacy of protecting our pristine areas. In 1964, The late Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota, as vice president of the United States, spearheaded the creation of the Wilderness Act.

This act was the tool used to establish the wilderness status of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and more than 680 total wilderness areas around the country. And the late Bruce Vento, former congressman from Minnesota’s 4th District, was instrumental in creating the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in 1978 and fought hard to protect it in further challenges in the late 1990s.

Growing up in Minnesota, I sometimes take for granted the great natural resources and beautiful forests we have. But the Roadless Rule doesn’t take it for granted. The upholding of this rule continues that legacy by ensuring the protection of not only these lands in Minnesota, but millions of acres around the country.

The reinstatement of the Roadless Rule is a victory for the 1.8 million Americans who commented to the Forest Service and the many more millions who enjoy our wilderness areas and national forests every year.

It also is a win against the feeling that citizens’ input isn’t worth much in the policy process. In the face of many disappointing environmental rulings, it’s exhilarating to see a successful policy like the Roadless Rule win out over the politicized nature of the policy process.

Holly Lahd welcomes comments at [email protected].