Clinton enrages Republicans by protecting 59 million acres of forest

In the last few weeks of his presidency, Bill Clinton has enraged Republican politicians by acting to protect 59 million acres of pristine forests from commercial activities.

The new protection for ‘roadless’ areas of forest in 39 states, including the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, America’s largest temperate rainforest, was declared by Bill Clinton on 5 January at the National Arboretum in Washington, DC. The ‘roadless forests’ cover an area larger than all of the US’s national parks combined, and new regulation will protect these lands from road-building and logging. According to the Whitehouse, the Clinton Administration has now protected more land in the continental US than any administration since Theodore Roosevelt.

According to reports, however, Republican politicians are up in arms against the new scheme, which is expected to face a number of legal challenges, and top Republicans, including President-elect George W Bush, have promised to overturn conservation measures introduced by the Clinton administration. One of the legal challenges will come from the Republican Governor of Idaho, Dirk Kempthorne, who says that the plan may restrict access to Idaho Endowment Lands, managed for the benefit of public schools. “This is absolutely flawed public policy that has stiffed the states,” he said. “I’ve already had discussions with Attorney General Al Lance, and Idaho is preparing to take the administration to court to stop this.”

“The Forest Service denied at least three requests we made to get maps of the lands proposed under this plan,” said Kempthorne. “The affected states were not partners at the table when this ill-conceived proposal was being developed, and this unilateral act undermines the bipartisan agreement between Western governors and the administration on forest health, land management and wildfire policy.”

According to the American Forest and Paper Association, the new roadless forest policy confounds both science and common sense, and is aimed at permanently locking up nearly 60 million acres for the exclusive use of non-motorised recreationists. Benign neglect will not restore healthy forests, they say, condemning them to a cycle of overstocked stands, disease and insect infestation, and catastrophic wildfires. Devastation like that witnessed recently in Los Alamos will be the inevitable result, they say.

The scheme was initiated in October 1999, when Clinton directed the Department of Agriculture and the US Forest Service to develop a comprehensive plan to provide long-term protection for “roadless” areas of national forests, so that the “degree of protection afforded should reflect the best available science and a careful consideration of the full range of ecological, economic, and social values inherent in these lands”. The project received input from more than 600 public meetings, attended by 39,000 people. The Forest Service also consulted more than 180 American Indian and Alaskan Native groups, received 1.6 million comments from the public, and collaborated with seven other federal agencies.

“Throughout our national forest system there are millions of acres of land that do not have, and in most cases have never had roads cut through them,” said Clinton at the launch of the scheme. “These areas represent some of the last, best unprotected wild lands anywhere in America.”

According to the Whitehouse, the roadless areas in national forests provide an array of irreplaceable benefits. They are a major source of clean drinking water for millions of Americans, and provide critical habitats for wildlife, including more than 200 plant and animal species which are protected or are proposed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The forests also provide opportunities for outdoor recreation, such as hunting, fishing, mountain biking, off-road vehicle use on designated trails, and hiking.

Environmentalists, who are otherwise concerned about Bush’s selections for some of the top environmental posts, have applauded the ban on road-building. “The majority of Americans support stronger environmental protections,” said Deb Callahan, President of the League of Conservation Voters. “Clean air, clean water and our public lands need not be sacrificed in order to have successful energy and natural resource policies.”

Flexibility will be retained within the scheme in order to protect communities and public safety, including provisions to help ease potential economic impacts on local communities, to preserve and enhance the forests, and to protect against catastrophic wildfire, says the Whitehouse. The provisions include:

  • the logging of timber from roadless areas which has already been sold by the Forest Service or has been approved for sale;
  • carefully controlled logging, such as thinning of underbrush and small trees, in order to reduce the risk of wildfire, protect endangered species habitat, or restore ecosystem health;
  • a $72 million, six-year assistance programme to ease the economic transition for affected communities and to help them diversify their economies; and
  • a continuation of all existing activities such as sales, permits, and leases, which are already the subject of a Forest Service decision, including mineral development, which can continue after existing leases expire if f they are immediately renewed or reissued.

In a move expected to enrage Republicans further still, outgoing Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck announced an initiative, on 8 January, to protect mature old-growth forests. Defined as stands of trees of 200 years or older, mature trees do not pose a fire risk, says Dombeck. “For too long, we allowed the issues of old-growth forests and roadless areas to serve as poster children for both sides of the conflict industry,” he said. “In the not-so-distant past, old trees were viewed as ‘overmature’ or ‘decadent’ and targeted for cutting because of their high economic values. Today, national forests contain our last remaining sizeable blocks of old-growth forest — a remnant of America’s original landscape. In the future, we will celebrate the fact that national forests serve as a reservoir for our last remaining old-growth forests and their associated ecological and social values.”

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie