To gaze upon Big Mallard Creek is to see something you could spend a lifetime looking for: a rolling timber carpet in every direction. No railroad tracks. No roads. Just Ponderosa pine and lodgepole and grand fir, with thin veins of snow.
This is the West that Charles Pezeshki imagined as a boy in Ohio, when he would stare at a six-pack of beer brewed in the land of sky-blue water. And here at Big Mallard Creek, he found it: 5 million acres stretched across the belly of Idaho and western Montana, an unbroken parade of ridges and rivers and thick forests, the biggest expanse of roadless wilderness anywhere in the Lower 48.
"Let me tell you, the end of the frontier isn't an idea anymore. The end of the frontier is about 100 miles away from here," Pezeshki said recently while sitting in the offices of the Cove-Mallard Coalition in Moscow, Idaho. "What is happening is that people are losing their memory of what wild places really are. We're basically at the bottom of the ninth, and we're the last guys at bat here."
Responding to such concerns, the Clinton administration on Jan. 22 proposed an 18-month moratorium on virtually all new roads and the decommissioning of some existing ones in large wilderness areas not covered by management plans, pending development of a long-term strategy.
The moratorium is subject to a 60- to 90-day public review, after which it can be put in place by the Forest Service without congressional approval.
While many environmentalists say the new policy doesn't go far enough, opponents say it will lock most Americans out of their national forests and make it more difficult for companies to cut timber on public lands. Commercial logging has been an economic lifeline for hundreds of small communities in the West.
The Idaho Conservation League predicts that the moratorium will halt 54 of 103 planned timber sales in roadless areas in that state, including up to six at the 76,000-acre Cove-Mallard wildlife corridor linking three major wilderness regions in central Idaho.
The Forest Service inventoried 9.4 million roadless acres in Idaho in the mid-1980s, but 1 million of those acres have since had roads built in the last decade, the conservation league said.
In the Northwest, environmental groups had hoped in vain that the roadless policy would reopen the issue of old-growth forests, centuries-old groves west of the Cascades considered environmental treasures, but which were designated for logging in the compromise that settled the late '80s wars over efforts to preserve habitat for the endangered spotted owl.
"It borders on gross negligence that our forests would be exempted from this policy when communities are clamoring for cleaner drinking water and our salmon populations are plummeting," said Ken Rait, conservation director of the Oregon Natural Resources Council.
Indeed, a number of conservationists complain that the federal government turned a deaf ear to demands years ago for an end to all road building. Now the government has caught up too late, they say--asserting that it is time not only to stop new roads but to halt all private logging in public forests.
"This roadless area policy at its best says that everything that's left in our national forest system under 1,000 acres is open to logging. It's a free-for-all," said Tim Hermach of the Native Forest Council in Eugene, Ore. (The policy actually protects only areas larger than 5,000 acres, but includes forests as small as 1,000 acres if they are next to a larger wilderness area.)
The timber industry warns that the moratorium will further restrict commercial access to the national forests at a time when logging towns throughout the West, faced with a mounting array of environmental regulations, struggle to keep mills open.
"There is no question that a lot of our Western forests are at risk to catastrophic wildfire, insect and disease outbreaks, and merely drawing a line around an area and saying 'This area has no roads, it must be . . . protected,' is ridiculous," said Stefany Bales of the Intermountain Forest Industry Assn., which is based in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.
Republican lawmakers in the West have accused the administration of pressing ahead with the moratorium before considering the consequences.
"We are presented with a 'ready-fire-aim,' scattershot proposal that . . . undermines the ability of local forest managers and scientists to properly manage forests based upon local environmental conditions in cooperation with local communities," said Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
The road-building moratorium, the first major policy directive from newly appointed Forest Service chief Mike Dombeck, comes out of a growing realization that the rugged roads that penetrate the national forests are responsible not only for heavy construction and upkeep costs, but also for some of the worst damage to surrounding forests. Silt from roads washes into streams, making them inhospitable to fish. Wildlife migration patterns are interrupted.
Up to 70% of the 422 mudslides in Idaho's Clearwater National Forest two years ago were associated with Forest Service logging roads. In Washington state, a narrow, treacherous road through the northern half of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest--constructed on steep, unstable slopes to access an old-growth forest timber sale--collapsed in nearly 30 places over a 13-mile stretch in 1996. Repair costs are estimated at $2 million. In Oregon, the Forest Service is faced with a multimillion-dollar price tag to decommission roads in the Fish Creek drainage area near Mt. Hood after heavy rains spurred 236 landslides in 1996, threatening municipal water supplies and killing fish.
Roads, Forest Service officials say, are the agency's No. 1 source of water quality problems.
Yet the most fundamental debate has to do with the fact that roads are roads, and as such, open up wilderness that would otherwise be untouched except for a few hardy hikers and hunters. Roads bring weekend elk and bear hunters in pickups; they bring snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles and Sunday picnickers, all potential death sentences to struggling populations of gray wolves, grizzly bears, wolverines, lynx and other species that cannot survive without vast, untouched lands on which to roam.
A plan to build 145 miles of road and cut 81 million board feet of timber from the Cove-Mallard corridor drew little attention at first, mostly because the region was so remote. Moscow, a college town, is the closest urban population center, and it is a four-hour drive away. Yet, as word spread, a network of activists began flowing in from across the country.
Cove-Mallard, now known in environmental circles as "the mother of all roadless areas," acts as a link among three huge, officially protected wilderness areas in Idaho and Montana--collectively known as the Greater Salmon-Selway Ecosystem.
The whole system contains 32 roadless areas greater than 100,000 acres. Only by preserving these big chunks of wilderness can the disappearing Idaho wild salmon and other wilderness-dependent species hope to survive, preservation advocates say.
"Cove-Mallard really is kind of the poster child, because it represents all that's wrong with national Forest Service policy toward roadless areas," said Gary Macfarlane, an activist with the Cove-Mallard Coalition, which has been organizing protests against road building and timber sales in since 1992.
Jake Kreilick, a Missoula, Mont., activist facing a $100,000 civil judgment for allegedly damaging road-building equipment at Cove-Mallard, is hopeful that the policy will protect the wild lands that have not been logged. One-fifth of all the nation's roadless land inventory lies within the Greater Salmon-Selway Ecosystem.
In the Salmon River Valley not far away, Salmon Mayor Stan Davis fears that the plan to shut out new roads and decommission old ones will leave the valley's mills in worse trouble and residents without access to the mountains they have always considered home. "The roads that they'll be shutting down are the places where we go picnicking, where we go to do the normal things we do," he said.
At the Lodgepole Inn in Dixie--where a sign informs environmental activists that they will not be served--owner Jean Lycan said that the new policy is confounding to residents there and in nearby Elk City, where the Shearer Lumber Co. mill depends on Cove-Mallard and surrounding timber.
"Right now, they [environmentalists] are totally breaking mills, lumberyards, hardware stores and families. . . . I think there's a lot of people, especially back East, that have logged their timber, built their concrete cities and now they say, don't do it in Idaho."
Already, local government officials, recreational vehicle proponents, mining industry groups and timber organizations are forming coalitions against the policy.
"There are hundreds of elected officials who are outraged by this," said Chuck Cushman of the American Land Rights Assn., which is based in Washington state. He recently sent out a fax alert on the policy and had nearly 100 groups set up in opposition within 24 hours.
"It's a question of trust," Cushman said. "You have all the wilderness bills that have gone through, and when the environmental groups get as much as they can through that process, then they prevail on the administration to get more. . . . They're essentially expanding de facto wilderness in this country by 10 million acres."
But proponents of ending road building say even 10 million acres is little to preserve when nearly everything else is gone.
"We have significantly eroded our legacy of wild places for future generations," said Rait of the Oregon Natural Resources Council.
"The scientific community has testified that roadless areas provide important habitat for fish and other wildlife. They are important sources for clean drinking water. But beyond that, our roadless areas, our unprotected wilderness, are sanctuaries for our human spirit [and are] vulnerable at that."