While the 18-month road construction suspension is in effect, the Forest Service intends to develop new policies to minimise environmental damage. The policies will help identify unessential roads, recommend which roads should be eliminated or maintained, and assess roads that need to be reconstructed and maintained so that they are safe to use.

America’s National Forests cover more than 191 million acres of publicly-owned land in 44 states. Most of these lands are open to logging, mining, motorised recreation and other commercial uses. 18% – areas designated as wilderness by Congress – are protected from new road building. A final 31%, or 60 million acres of National Forests, are still road-free. These undeveloped forests lands are not permanently protected from road construction and commercial and motorised recreational uses.

“It is our responsibility to safeguard the often irreplaceable ecological value of unroaded areas until a permanent policy can protect our last great open spaces, our water and wildlife, and the economic health of forest communities,” US Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said. “We are therefore calling an official time out, so we can examine the science, involve the public and build a roads policy for the 21st century.”

According to the new policy, which was published on February 12, 1999 in the US Federal Register, all Forest Service roads will be placed in two categories – classified and unclassified. A classified road is at least 50 inches (1.27m) wide and constructed and maintained for vehicle use. An unclassified road is considered a road that was not constructed, maintained or intended for highway use.

Once built, roads must be maintained by the Forest Service for many years. The Forest Service estimates the national forest road system has 383,000 miles (616,000 km) of classified roads and 52,000 miles (84,000 km) of unclassified roads.

US environment organisation, The Wilderness Society, said the Forest Service is on the right track with the moratorium, but warned that the government had only 18 months in which to find a way to protect 60 million acres of forests.

The Wilderness Society also said the moratorium leaves more than 15 million acres of forest unprotected, such as the National Forests in Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, Northern California and 11 other National Forests.

“[Forest Service Chief] Dombeck is trying to lead the agency in the right direction, ” said William H. Meadows, President of The Wilderness Society. “I assume he knows we need to go farther than just a new roads policy to protect these last remaining roadless areas. Ultimately this policy he’s started should lead us to permanent protection of all 60 million acres at stake.

“You’ve got to realise that a single road will dump silt into a nearby river for over 20 years,” continued Meadows. “Roads are the number-one threat to forest health, and without the protection offered today, many of these unspoiled areas will be cut with roads, and logged. But 18 months is not nearly long enough to stave off the threat.”

Road building in virgin wilderness areas immediately disqualifies them from permanent Federal safeguarding under the National Wilderness Preservation System. Environmental impact reports show roads cause erosion and mudslides that damage streams, fish and water quality, and invite increased off-road vehicle use in pristine forest areas. They are also costly. The Forest Service currently can afford to maintain only 18% of its roads, and faces a $8.5-billion backlog on upkeep.

The roads in National Forests are built primarily to facilitate logging programs-which lost $45 million of taxpayers’ money in Fiscal Year 1997, the most recent year for which figures are available, according to analyses released by The Wilderness Society.

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