Clinton-era protection of ‘roadless’ areas under threat

With legal challenges looming, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has announced that it is reviewing one of President Clinton’s most heralded environmental protections.

The Roadless Area Conservation Rule, implemented in the last weeks of the Clinton Administration, designated nearly 60 million acres in national forests off-limits to roadbuilding, most logging and other development requiring roads (see related story), but has faced problems since the outset. Opposed by logging companies and developers, the rule currently has eight lawsuits contesting its application. Last month, the Chief of the USDA’s Forest Service, Dale Bosworth, announced that the rule was to be altered by allowing ‘case-by-case’ reviews, and on 7 July the Service issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR), with a sixty day public comment period.

The ANPR, which is available for inspection at the Federal Register, lists several questions for the public to consider regarding roadless area values and future protection and management of inventoried roadless areas in national forests and grasslands. “This public comment period is an effort to be responsive to the concerns raised by local communities, states, tribes and other stakeholders,” Bosworth said. “It is important to give people additional time to express their views on how best to move this process forward. If we spend the extra time now, we have a better chance of coming up with a workable solution that has the support, commitment and understanding of the American people.”

The Forest Service says that of the 58.5 million acres of inventoried roadless areas, less than 0.2% might be considered for road construction during the next five years, after appropriate environmental review and documentation, while 84% of the areas are not managed for timber production and 41% prohibit road construction. The USDA says that it will also adhere to guiding principles of informed decision-making: working together with local input and information; protecting forests; protecting communities, homes, and property; and protecting access to property.

However, the US Public Interest Research Group (US PIRG), the national lobbying office for the non-profit state public interest advocacy groups, as well as environmental NGOs, believe the rule is under threat. “The Bush administration’s move today sends a clear signal that it intends to weaken the popular and well-balanced wild forests plan,” said John Griffith, US PIRG Wild Forest Campaign Coordinator. The group draws attention to the fact that out of a record 1.6 million comments submitted during three separate public comment periods over the last two years, more than 95% called for complete protection of ‘roadless areas’.

“The Bush administration is ignoring an exhaustive two-year rulemaking period and a broad public mandate to protect what’s left of these wilderness areas,” Griffith said. “If President Bush is truly serious about preserving our natural heritage for future generations, he should immediately implement the Roadless Area Conservation Rule as written.”

Meanwhile, the Democrat-controlled Senate has, as expected followed the previous week’s rejection by the House of Representatives to prohibit new oil, gas and coal exploration in millions of acres of national monuments (see related story), by voting 52-47 against the proposal.

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