Groups outraged as ruling threatens forests and water supplies

A new ruling by the Bush administration overturning the four year ban on developing roadless areas of national forests will not only destroy areas of pristine forests and wildlife habitats but threaten clean drinking water sources and areas of recreation, environmental campaigners say.

Outraged groups say the new ruling will simply expose all national forest lands to logging, mining and energy drilling with no thought of the wider environmental consequences.

“No resource is more important than clean water. Clean drinking water will be at a premium as our nation’s population grows. More than 350 areas in 39 states have national forest roadless lands that are free sources of clean water. It doesn’t make sense to put those clean water sources at risk by opening roadless areas to industrial logging, mineral or energy production,” Jim DiPeso, Policy Director of REP America, a Republican environmental group said.

The roadless rule was brought in toward the end of the Clinton era and created de facto wilderness areas over 58.5 million acres of land mostly in 12 states. Overall, 51% of all forest land was still left open to drilling, logging and mining; 18% was designated as wilderness and protected as strictly off-limits; and 31% was protected by the roadless rule.

It is this 31% that the Bush administration’s new ruling has in its sights.

Instead of automatic protection of the areas, governors would have to petition the Secretary of Agriculture for protection of roadless areas in their state. However, citizens wanting roadless protection cannot be guaranteed that governors will devote resources to this, and there is no guarantee that the Secretary of Agriculture would approve the petitions.

Individual governors now have 18 months to propose to the Secretary of Agriculture which forest lands they wish to remain off-limits.

Environmental groups point out that the roadless rule was adopted after more than 600 public hearings and 2.5 million public comments in favour. The new ruling to overturn it came after no public hearings, no scientific scrutiny, and more than 1.7 million public comments in opposition.

The news was welcomed by the American Forest and Paper Association and from the National Center for Policy Analysis, a right-wing think-tank that advocates private sector solutions to public policy issues.

In a statement the think-tank said that the roadless rule “risked massive wildfires” in forests, and that overturning it, and cutting forests down would limit the chances of forest fires occurring.

However, this claim is also refuted. According to Forest Service Chief Michael Dombeck, 87% of the areas at high risk of catastrophic fire on the National Forests are in already roaded areas, while only 13% are found in roadless areas.

Testifying before US House Committee in 2000, Jim Lyons, Under Secretary of USDA at the time, said: “Many fire ecologists believe that unroaded areas have less potential for larger, higher intensity, more severe forest fires than roaded areas. This conclusion is based on several factors; fire suppression has been focused more in roaded than unroaded areas allowing more fuels to accumulate in the roaded areas. Also, in some areas, past logging practices have left many acres with additional dead and down woody material on the ground. Timber stands are generally more dense in roaded than unroaded areas, particularly in logged areas that have regenerated. These regenerated stands are often highly susceptible to forest fire damage.”

The State with the largest amount of roadless forest is Alaska – an area the Bush administration also wants to exploit for oil drilling purposes (see related story). Removing the roadless rule would remove one more barrier to this.

Roger Schlicksen, President of environmental group Defenders of Wildlife said it was truly “breathtaking how beholden this White House is to industry”.

“The timber industry didn’t like the idea that the best remaining wildlife habitat in our National Forests might actually necessarily and legitimately be set aside for something other than clear cuts, so they had their allies in the White House change the rules. All the other values in our forests – like recreation, clean drinking water and homes for wildlife – get dumped by this rule so that the White House can keep cutting down to the last tree and drilling for the last drop of oil.”

By David Hopkins

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