Two Capitol Hill lawmakers have introduced bills to codify a controversial Clinton-era plan to declare over 58 millions acres of national forest off-limits to industrial use.
Legislation sponsored by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) and Jay Inslee (D-Washington) seeks to break the legal logjam that has surrounded the roadless rule for almost nine years. The “Roadless Area Conservation Act of 2009” currently has 25 co-sponsors in the Senate and over 150 in the House.
In January 2001, just a few days before it left office, the Clinton administration proposed a rule banning road construction and logging, as well as most forms of forest management, on 58.5 million acres of national forest land on 39 states. The move was hailed by environmentalists who had long sought permanent “protection” for the forests. Yet what was protection for some was seen as a recipe for ecological disaster by others. In November 2000, two months before the plan was put forward, the U.S. Forest Service reported that about half of the 58.5 million acres of the soon-to-be-designated roadless area in the lower 48 states consisted of forests in a moderate or advanced state of ill health and ecological deterioration – making them prime candidates for catastrophic wildfires.
By prohibiting logging, even of dead and diseased trees, the roadless rule threatened to make these forests even more combustible. Furthermore, the lack of roads would ensure that blazes quickly spread and become uncontrollable by impeding access by firefighters and their equipment to raging infernos.
The roadless rule was challenged by Western states and timber companies in six courts and was eventually invalidated by a federal judge in Wyoming in 2003 for violating the Wilderness Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. Too timid to challenge the rule head-on, the Bush administration let the matter be sorted out in federal courts before finally setting the rule aside in July 2004. It was replaced by a Bush policy that allowed governors to petition the federal government if they wished to keep areas roadless. Only two states – Idaho and Colorado – have chosen this path.
In August, the Obama administration appealed the 2003 court decision invalidating the original roadless rule. The move came after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided in a separate case to reinstate the Clinton-era rule and to permanently set aside the Bush administration’s alternative policy.
Not surprisingly, the Cantwell/Inslee legislation enjoys the support of such environmental groups as the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters, Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Wilderness Society.
Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D., is a senior policy analyst with CFACT.