President Clinton will propose rules today that could more than double the wilderness land protected from mining, logging and other development by banning the building of roads in national forests, White House officials said Tuesday.
From New Hampshire’s White Mountains to California’s Sierra Nevada range, from the southern Appalachians to the Pacific Northwest and possibly to Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, as much as 54 million acres--some two-thirds of the nation’s still-pristine forests--could be put off-limits to all but hikers, cross-country skiers and boaters.
Environmentalists praised the proposal as one of the federal government’s most far-reaching conservation efforts in decades. Clinton plans to announce it during a visit today to the George Washington National Forest in the Shenandoah Mountains.
The president’s action initiates a complicated government process that faces many potential obstacles. The U.S. Forest Service will have to assess the ultimate impact of the ban on road construction in areas currently without roads, which are necessary for logging and mining. The process is also designed to answer this question: Do the public lands of the U.S. Forest Service have greater value as wilderness or as suppliers of timber and minerals?
The timber industry said that Clinton’s announcement is the first step toward closing the national forests to all logging--and to anyone who needs a road to reach a destination deep in the woods.
“This will shut us out of the forest indefinitely and all the bikers, hikers and boaters will come with us,” said Michael Klein, a spokesman for the American Forest & Paper Assn. “It’s a very elitist national forest.”
And western Republican lawmakers were in full battle gear Tuesday. Raising objections before today’s announcement, 38 Republicans members of the Senate and House sent a letter to Michael P. Dombeck, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, telling him: “We cannot stand by idly and watch our constituents lose the right to travel on the land they own.”
But the president’s proposal would ban road-building only in designated regions, many of which are already subject to a moratorium. It would not ban access on foot.
The proposed rule would be issued next spring by the Forest Service and a period of public comment would follow. It could be made permanent in late 2000 in the final weeks of Clinton’s term. Although not out of character for Clinton, the policy would be a significant element in his environmental legacy.
At its heart, the decision reflects an evolving shift under the Clinton administration toward recreational use of the national forests from the historical view that their primary purpose was to supply timber to a growing nation. The U.S. Forest Service, which manages them, is an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Over the last 10 years, the role of the nation’s forests has shifted dramatically. The amount of timber harvested on federal lands has been reduced by nearly two-thirds. The national forests, which once supplied 25% of the nation’s softwood timber, now provide 3%, according to the forest and paper trade association. Meanwhile, recreational visits have increased from 560 million in 1980 to 860 million in 1996. And of the $134 billion that the forests contribute to the nation’s economy, the Forest Service reports, $111 billion comes from recreation.
Currently, 34.7 million acres of Forest Service property are characterized as wilderness.
Within several weeks, in a related initiative, the administration is expected to announce a major shift in how the Forest Service weighs crucial decisions about the future of the 192 million acres it manages, abandoning a built-in policy bias toward road-building. Under that initiative, agency officials considering a new forest road would start with the assumption that it is not necessary rather than, as often has been the case, presuming that it is necessary and then examining possible environmental damage.
Forest roads are mostly one-lane dirt trails that allow trucks to haul timber out of clear-cut regions. The Forest Service says that there are approximately 383,000 miles of such trails. Another 60,000 miles of short spurs have been cut into the forests, environmentalists say. The total mileage far outruns the 43,717 miles of the interstate highway system.
Critics say that the roads--wide enough to permit passage of a tractor-trailer--often travel along steep hillsides, allowing heavy spring rains and melting snow to carry silt into valley streams, thus fouling drinking water and fish habitats.
But their greatest concern is that construction of roads leaves the forest accessible to loggers and miners. Prohibit road construction, they argue, and timber operations and open-pit mines no longer will damage the environment.
Loggers, on the other hand, argue that careful timber cutting keeps a forest healthy and better able to resist wildfires, disease and insects.
The Clinton plan is certain to prompt a drawn-out and messy fight, pitting the administration against a western-led coalition of timber interests, mining companies, paper-products manufacturers and their Republican allies in Congress.
Describing the new rule as one that would prohibit access to roadless areas and keep public lands closed unless otherwise opened, the western Republicans wrote to the forest chief: “While the Forest Service might like this step backward to feudal European policies, it is completely unacceptable to us and those who use our public lands.”
But Ken Rait, executive director of the Heritage Forest Campaign, a National Audubon Society project created to press the administration toward protecting the forests, said that the land coming under study is “some of our most important fish and wildlife habitat, providing recreation havens for a population demanding such opportunities.
“The administration is embarking on an unprecedented effort to determine the fate of America’s unprotected wilderness,” Rait said. “This could be the boldest conservation move of the century.”
Authority to declare specific acreage as wilderness, in which industrial activity and road-building are prohibited, rests with Congress, under the 1964 Wilderness Act. But the Forest Service decides where roads may be built in the national forests, in effect giving it authority to create de facto wilderness by limiting access.
By issuing the new policy as an executive order, the White House hopes that it will be accepted by the next president. But in recent years, Congress has proved itself adept at thwarting administration environmental policy, or at least throwing major roadblocks in the way of the administration, by restricting funding for activities of which it disapproves.