Dear EarthTalk: What is the “Roadless Rule” and why are environmentalists in favor of it?
—Eliza Carmody, Marysville, WA
The U.S. Forest Service manages America”s national forests for “multiple uses,” not just recreation and preservation. And over the past 50 years, one of those primary “uses” has been resource extraction, whereby taxpayer-subsidized leases have been granted to logging, mining and energy companies so they can remove and sell timber, ore, oil and gas. Road building is key to these activities so that heavy equipment can be moved in and out. Needless to say, both the road building and the resource extraction itself are very damaging to the forest ecosystem.
In one of his last acts as president in January 2001, Bill Clinton signed an executive order preventing the construction of roads on large areas of wild lands within America”s national forests. The so-called “Roadless Rule” preserved 58.5 million acres of unspoiled forest land in 39 states. But in July 2004, the Bush Administration revamped the law, giving state governors the final say on decisions about opening up otherwise virgin national forest lands to resource extraction.
Environmentalists cheered Clinton”s order back in 2001, contending that roads built on forest lands often punch through wildlife habitat ranges, cause erosion and silting of rivers and streams, and destroy the backcountry experience for human visitors. Industry, however, argued that it infringed on the Forest Service”s guiding principle of multiple uses by essentially excluding a traditional user group—loggers and miners. By revamping the law, the Bush Administration gave the nod to industry, despite the fact that, according to the Heritage Forests Campaign, public comment invited by the Forest Service had been overwhelmingly in favor of the Roadless Rule.
Much of the land in contention is in western states looking to bring jobs and money into otherwise ailing economies. The U.S. Forest Service just recently approved its first new timber leases on lands previously protected from development by the Roadless Rule in the lush southeast section of Alaska, where dwindling natural resources and a sluggish economy have conspired to drive unemployment rates to unprecedented highs. Alaska”s state leadership has traditionally favored extracting and selling the state”s abundant natural resources. New timber leases in previously protected sections of Idaho and Wyoming are expected soon as well.
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