Our Forests May Be on a Road to Ruin

Bill Clinton was the 42nd president of the United States.

A century ago, Theodore Roosevelt warned against despoiling the environment, saying “to waste, to destroy our natural resources, to skin and exhaust the land instead of using it so as to increase its usefulness, will result in undermining in the days of our children the very prosperity which we ought by right to hand down to them amplified and developed.” As president, I worked hard to heed that warning.

With the active support of 1.5 million citizens, in January 2001, my administration issued the Roadless Area Conservation Rule to limit logging and development in nearly 60 million acres of national forests where there were no roads already built. The Natural Resources Defense Council called it the most important forest conservation measure of the past century.

But now, the “roadless rule” faces a threat. In recent weeks, the Bush administration has announced its proposal to eliminate it, setting the stage for trees to be cut and roads to be built in forests throughout our land. The administration claims that forests can still be protected even without the rule. However, under its plan, current policy would be stood on its head: Governors would be required to petition the Forest Service to keep certain forests roadless -- ignoring the stark political reality that few governors are likely to stand up to the pressure of timber companies and other special interests to protect national forests in their states.


Opponents of the roadless rule also argue that it increases the risk of forest fires. That is wrong because the rule specifically gives the U.S. Forest Service the power to build a road, fight a fire or thin an area to reduce fire risk. And we also know from experience that the way to minimize hazards is by devoting federal resources to reducing risks near homes and communities, not by logging backcountry lands. The roadless rule struck a balance between the environment and the economy.

The forest road network is already eight times as big as the interstate highway system. And our rule allows logging and other commercial activity to continue on more than half of national forest lands. In fact, the timber supply that was placed off-limits to the timber industry amounts to one-quarter of 1% of what our nation now produces.

The wild lands that are now protected by the roadless rule are a fragile and priceless gift to all Americans. Once lost, they are gone forever. In fact, the only reason these forests exist today is because our forebears had the wisdom to know they needed to be protected. By enacting the roadless rule, America renewed its commitment to safeguard these natural treasures for future generations to enjoy.

America’s national forests are essential sources of clean water and clean air and havens for wildlife. But, more than that, they are temples for the renewal of the human spirit. One of the Americans who inspired Theodore Roosevelt to conserve our nation’s forests was the naturalist John Muir, who once said, “Everybody needs beauty as well as places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” In today’s fast-paced, high-tech world, Muir’s words are even more compelling. In announcing the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, I said: “Sometimes progress comes by expanding frontiers. But sometimes it’s measured by preserving frontiers for our children.”

The roadless rule came about after the largest outpouring of public support in the history of federal rule-making. The American people have a new opportunity, and a responsibility, to speak up once again. Through Sept. 16, the Forest Service will accept public comment on the Bush plan. I encourage everyone to make his or her voice heard to ensure that America the Beautiful remains just as beautiful for generations to come.