Bush Plans Changes to Roadless Rule

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Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration announced Monday that it plans to allow logging of old-growth trees in roadless areas of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest and to consider governors’ requests to open up other parts of America’s wild national forests.

Governors could request that roads be built in wild national forestlands to protect human health and safety, provide access to private property, reduce fire risk or improve habitat.

Administration officials described these proposals as limited revisions to the so-called roadless rule, a Clinton administration policy that banned road building and most logging in 58.5 million acres of backwoods national forestlands.


But environmental groups criticized the proposals as gutting a regulation that would have left about 30% of the country’s national forestlands intact for future generations.

The administration intends to propose its plan for Tongass officially this month and seek public comment. It expects to finalize the plan in December. At the same time, it aims to publish its proposal to give governors more say in managing roadless areas and to announce a plan to allow logging in Chugach National Forest near Anchorage.

The roadless rule -- designed to protect the most pristine forests from logging, mining and road building -- has had a troubled few years.

In May 2001, a federal district court in Boise, Idaho, blocked it just months after it went into effect. A year and a half later, a federal appeals court reinstated it. The fate of the rule still could be affected by any of several court challenges.

The Bush administration’s proposal to exempt Tongass National Forest from the rule was announced as part of a settlement of a lawsuit filed by the state of Alaska. The state argued that the roadless rule would violate the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which set aside millions of acres of the state for national parks, wildlife refuges and monuments and promised that the remainder of the lands would be open for multiple uses.

The proposed settlement would double the number of acres available for logging in Tongass, the largest national forest, administration officials said.


Alaska’s timber industry was elated by the news, which will give the green light to 50 timber sales that had been put on hold.

“It certainly breathes new hope into our industry,” said Owen Graham, executive director of the Alaska Forest Assn., a timber group. “We’ll be able to employ twice as many people.”

But conservationists accused the administration of using the excuse of the lawsuit to benefit the timber industry and disregard the public’s desire to protect Alaska’s wilderness.

“They’re going back in time and opening areas to development that people had come to expect would be protected,” said Sue Libenson, spokeswoman for the Alaska Coalition, a conservation group.

Administration officials said environmental groups were misrepresenting their proposals. Mark Rey, the undersecretary of Agriculture who oversees the Forest Service, stressed that the administration is under no obligation to retain the policy. The changes it is offering, he said, are in response to the legitimate concerns of rural America.

“We are trying to make available relief in limited circumstances where the rule isn’t working very well, where it shouldn’t have been applied in the first place,” Rey said. “I don’t look at these as big loopholes.”


The administration plans to exempt about 2.7 million acres from the roadless rule that it says were improperly included.

For instance, the administration intends to shrink the roadless areas in Humboldt Toiyabe National Forest near Reno to expand a campground. It also plans to redesign the roadless areas in Ashley National Forest in northeastern Utah because local officials identified roads in those areas that were not on Forest Service maps.

Beyond that, Rey said, it is impossible to predict how many acres of wild national forestland will remain roadless under the Bush administration’s plan because no one knows how many exemptions governors will seek.

Rey offered one example of the kind of request that the administration expects. Roadless areas of Salmon Challis National Forest in Idaho all but surround the town of Salmon. Rey said Idaho Gov. Dirk Kemp- thorne may ask for an exemption so that the forest near the town could be thinned to deter forest fires.

However, environmentalists warned that instead of making small fixes to the policy, the administration’s plan stands to destroy it.

“The American people and the courts have spoken repeatedly and the message is the same: These last wild forests must be protected,” said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. “The Bush administration has apparently not been listening to Americans. Instead, their ears have been tuned to their allies in the timber industry.”