WASHINGTON - July 12 - One of the most popular conservation policies in American history was dealt a crippling blow today with the Bush administration's decision to rewrite the landmark Roadless Area Conservation Rule. The administration has proposed a convoluted process that will leave America's last wild forests open to destructive commercial logging and road building. Today's announcement (*see below for more detail) finalizes a controversial decision first proposed last summer to allow individual Governors to decide whether federal lands located in their state should receive federal protection.
"The Bush administration's announcement today will immediately imperil wild forests across the country, leaving them vulnerable to commercial timber sales and road building," said Carl Pope, Sierra Club Executive Director. "These wild forests are special places of national significance and need a national policy to ensure their proper management."
Already, 440,000 miles of roads are carved into America's National Forests. The wildly popular Roadless Rule helped protect our remaining wild forests and the clean water, wildlife habitat and outstanding backcountry recreation opportunities from more taxpayer-subsidized commercial logging. The Roadless Rule was developed over three years of public hearings and scientific analysis. This policy change is the Bush administration's latest effort to reduce or eliminate decades of National Forest protection and increase spending to benefit timber companies.
"The original policy was designed to protect America's last remaining wild forests, increasingly scarce unspoiled places that provide some of the highest quality fish and wildlife habitat, backcountry recreation and clean water supplies in the country," said Pope.
Today's policy change is just one more in a string of Bush administration decisions to weaken or eliminate the core protections for America's wild forests. This month, the Forest Service released its final plan for the Threemile timber sale in the Tongass which would log more than 300 acres of pristine coastal rainforest and would build eight miles of new roads, almost all of which will occur in the extraordinary Rocky Pass and Camden roadless areas on north Kuiu Island. The next roadless area timber sale in the Tongass is the Gravina Island timber sale, expected to be finalized in August, 2004.
In Oregon, the administration is planning one of the largest timber sales in modern history in the Klamath-Siskiyou region of southern Oregon, site of the 2002 Biscuit fire. Under the guise of 'preventing forest fires', it amounts to the single largest timber sale in modern history and is projected to cost taxpayers at least $5.8 million. This timber sale - and others across Oregon - threatens thousands of acres of roadless and old growth wild forests.
Under the guise of "preventing fire," the Bush administration's litany of policy changes include an increase of ancient forest logging in the Pacific Northwest, reducing citizen involvement in management decisions, removing scientific analysis in the management of threatened and endangered species and increasing taxpayer subsidies to commercial logging programs. The Bush administration's most pointed effort to dissect protections for wild forests occurred with a Christmas Eve announcement last year to remove the Tongass National Forest from the Roadless Rule.
"The Bush administration has put a former timber industry lobbyist in charge and is now dismantling decades of public environmental safeguards piece by piece. Today's announcement is one more plank in the Bush administration's platform of deciding National Forest management based on the desires of timber industry executives," said Pope.
The Bush administration's new policy will render the Roadless Area Conservation Rule meaningless by requiring governors to petition the Forest Service to not construct roads in or otherwise develop inventoried wild roadless forest areas. The administration also indicated that it intends to permanently exempt the national forests in Alaska from the roadless rule.
The "state petition" process that the Forest Service will propose would require a two-step process for permanent protection of roadless areas on the national forests. First, a state governor would have to prepare an administrative petition "to adjust management direction" for roadless areas in their state. The Forest Service could simply reject this petition out-of-hand. Second, if the petition were agreed to, the Secretary of Agriculture would establish a formal rulemaking process on a state-by-state basis to consider permanent protection of the roadless areas in question. This administrative rulemaking is time-consuming and the administration could simply decide not to grant protection.
The proposed rule would replace the Roadless Rule, leaving all 58 million acres of inventoried roadless areas in the United States open to road building, logging, and resource development. Until a state governor petitions for protection, management of inventoried roadless areas would be based on the individual forest management plans, which often require no special protections.
Roadless Area Conservation Rule
The Roadless Rule, designed to protect 58 million acres of roadless wild forests in 39 states, was the result of the most extensive public comment process in history, spanning three years and 600 public meetings. During the rulemaking, the Clinton administration received a record-breaking one million public comments in support of protecting wild forests. To date, the Forest Service has received more than 2.5 million comments from the American people, 95 percent of which favor the strongest protections for these wild forests. From the day President Bush entered the White House, his administration's intentions have been clear: blocking the Roadless Rule was one of the new administration's first decisions, followed shortly by refusal to defend the rule in court.
Alaska's National Forests
The Tongass and Chugach National Forests comprise more than 14 million acres of roadless areas - roughly 25 percent of land protected under the 58.5-million acre roadless rule. Alaska's National Forests have been hammered over the years by logging, making the roadless protections for the Tongass and Chugach crucial. Over the past 45 years, the timber industry has clearcut more than 1 million acres of old-growth forest and built nearly 5,000 miles of logging roads in southeast Alaska. American taxpayers subsidize these roads and timber sales at a cost of $30 million a year, according to the General Accounting Office.
Under the guise of wildfire "prevention," the administration pushed a bill of their liking, Healthy Forests Restoration Act, through Congress. According to the Congressional Research Service logging increases the risk of fire by logging the larger, more fire-resistant trees that can be converted into wood products, leaving behind the small material, especially twigs and needles, known as "slash." In the environmental impact research from the development of the Roadless Rule, the Forest Service found that fires are twice as likely to occur in previously roaded and logged areas than in large roadless areas. Simply, most fires are caused by human activity: 80 percent in the West and 97 percent in the East. In determining budget priorities for FY '05, the administration replaced promised funding for honest fuel reduction with a $9 million increase in funding for commercial timber sales and an extra $5 million for planning timber sales in the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska.
Fish and Wildlife
This spring the Bush administration announced changes to the Northwest Forest Plan, crippling two key pillars on which regional forest and wildlife protections were based. Eliminating the "Survey and Manage" standard and weakening the "Aquatic Conservation Strategy" will have dire and far-reaching impacts on the region's water quality and wildlife. Both of these provisions were designed to protect rare wildlife species that live in mature and old growth forests and protect drinking water and habitat for salmon and other wildlife. The Administration is also proposing to change the ways federal agencies consult with one another by taking fish and wildlife experts out of public land management and replacing them with bureaucrats primarily concerned with logging and grazing America's National Forests.
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