RICHMOND - A Vermont group has called on the Obama administration to end logging and road building in undeveloped areas of the White Mountain National Forest and other federal woodlands to protect some of the last pristine public lands across the country.
"Americans have waited eight ... years to see our last pristine forests protected ..." said Mollie Matteson, a Vermont-based conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity.
Why the protection of roadless areas have become uncertain and in some cases jeopardized is the subject of a new report compiled by the biological diversity center - the Future of America's Last Roadless Forest.
Adopted in 2001, the landmark Roadless Area Conservation Rule, provided strong protections for all roadless areas by putting limits on road building and development, according to the report.
But then the Bush administration put a new "states petitions rule" in place in 2005, delegating the matter of roadless area protection to individual states, the report explains.
Covering more than 58 million acres that are still mostly roadless, the rule has resulted in legal disputes as result of the Bush action, the report said.
Recently, the Obama administration said it will defend the landmark rule. It recently kept open its right to appeal a case in Wyoming in the 10th U.S. Circuit of Apeals where the Justice Department has sided with environmentalists.
As well, the 9th U.S. Circuit of Appeals Court in California rejected the Bush roadless rule recently saying that the original 2001 offered forests more protection than the Bush rule.
Because of inconsistent policies since the initial landmark rule went into effect eight years ago, roadless areas in states such as Utah and New Hampshire have continued to experience roadbuilding and logging (including clearcutting), Matteson said.
As an example, she cited clearcutting of 139 acres in the Batchelder Brook timber sale in the South Carr Inventoried Roadless Area near Warren, N.H., in White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire. She also cited logging in another four other areas of the WMNF, totaling more than 1,700 acres.
Besides erosion and loss of habitat, effects of road building and clearcutting, include more demand from private landowners for access across the areas and more offroad motorized recreation, Matteson said.
Some of the pressure on roadless area eased earlier this year when Obama, issued an order requiring the U.S. Forest Service to get approval for all new road building in the national forest from Tom Vilsack, the secretary of Agency of Agriculture.
The order removed the authority of local Forest Service officials to allow logging or road building in roadless areas, according to the report.
Vilsack reinstated for one year most of the ban that stopped new road construction in national forests, according to the biodiversity center's report.
Another problem with Obama's "time out" is that it did not apply to roadless areas that were identified by the forest service after 2001, Matteson said.
In New Hampshire for cxample, federal foresters didn't extend protections to forest inventoried there after the land mark roadless rule took effect, she said.
This includes more than a third of 368,000-acres of roadless areas inventoried in the White Mountain National Forest, Matteson said.
As a result of Vilsack's directive, plans for building roads in Tongass National Forest in Alaska, where about 35 miles of roads were to be built as part of several timber sales, are now set to go in largest federal forest after previously being put on hold, Matteson said.
Vilsack recently approved the controversial timber sale in those South Revilla inventoried roadless areas on Tongass, Matteson noted. Vilsack said he would seek to end a federal injunction in Wyoming that barred the 2001 roadless rule from stopping road construction on remote wilderness.
The Dixie National Forest in southern Utah is another locale where the development of roadless areas poses a threat, according to Taylor McKinnon, a spokesman for Center for Biological Diversity in the southwest.
The national forest in that area faces an active proposal for a timber sale that would build roads on and clearcut more than 4,000-acres, according to the report. "These are last best lands that should be spared from impactful development...," McKinnon said.
Roadless areas in these cases are being treated in a similar way as other federal forests where road building, clearcutting and other development is standard, McKinnon said.
Under current policy more roadless areas will be open to logging as national forest officials do individual updates to their plans, McKinnon said. Opening protected forestland to new exotic species is another adverse effect that comes with logging roadless areas, he said.
The Obama administration still needs to develop a rule to protect all roadless areas including those earmarked by forest plan revisions and amendments, the report said. Vilsack said on Aug. 14 that the agency will develop a new planning rule to protect water, climate and wildlife.
"It's time for a policy that establishes strong, nationally consistent protections for all national forest roadless areas," Matteson said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.