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Roadless Initiative Update (11-27-00)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service is proposing new regulations to protect certain roadless areas within the National Forest System.  The proposed rule is in response to President Clinton's October 13, 1999 roadless initiative announcement to review 43 million acres of national forest lands for increased protection.  The proposed rule encompasses a roadless area initiative, a road management policy, and a planning rule which are intended to help provide for long-term sustainability, ensure collaboration with the public, and integrate science and new information into forest management and planning.  The most controversial provision of the roadless initiative is to restrict certain activities such as road construction and reconstruction in the unroaded portions of inventoried roadless areas.  There is concern from the geoscience community about the lack of access for scientific research and to conduct field studies on national forest land deemed roadless if such an initiative is promulgated.  For more information on this initiative and its affect on geology, please read John Dragonetti's article: "Conflict Over the Forest Service Proposed Roadless Plan" in the May 2000 issue of The Professional Geologist.  The U.S. Forest Service issued a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) and proposed rule on May 10, 2000.  A Final Environmental Impact Statement is due for release in the Winter 2000.  More extensive information and the full text of the DEIS is available on the Forest Service's roadless website.

Most Recent Action
After the public comment period for the Draft Environmental Impact Statement that was published back in the Spring closed on July 17, 2000, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) has been busy testifying at congressional hearings and preparing the final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).  On November 13th, USFS presented the final version of the EIS along with the agency's preferred plan for managing lands under its control to Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman.  According to the USFS press release from the event, the final EIS lists four management options available to the agency but stresses the agency's "preferred alternative" that would greatly limit timber harvesting in USFS lands and would "prohibit most road construction and reconstruction on 49.2 million acres of inventoried roadless areas, increasing to 58.5 million acres in April 2004 when the Tongass National Forest would be included."  More specifically, the preferred plan would "prohibit road construction, reconstruction, and timber harvest except for stewardship purposes within inventoried roadless areas, while excepting road reconstruction needed for road safety improvements, and Federal Aid Highway Projects."  Inventoried roadless areas comprise about 58.5 million acres, nearly a third of the National Forest System lands.  Along with restricting road construction in these areas, the preferred alternative would manage the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, the largest "administrative unit" in the USFS, with the same regulations as all other inventoried areas after 2004.  "Implementation of the prohibitions would commence on April 2004, as provided for by the social and economic mitigation measure to provide a transition period for communities most affected by changes in management of inventoried roadless areas in the Tongass."  Secretary Glickman is expected to make a final decision on the management plan in early December 2000.

Current Congress
In mid March 2000, the House Committee on Resources Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health chaired by Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage (R-Idaho) and Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources chaired by Rep. Barbara Cubin (R-Wyoming) held hearings on consecutive days concerning President Clinton's Roadless Initiative.  U.S. Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck and Department of Agriculture Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Jim Lyons were criticized by several members of both subcommittees for their apparent violation of the due process rights of affected parties and applicable statutes under the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) and the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA).  Of principal concern was the perception that agency plans had been formulated primarily with input from the Heritage Forest Campaign, The Wilderness Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, USPIRG, Earth Justice Legal Defense Fund, Audubon Society, and the Sierra Club.  Both subcommittees charged that individuals from these environmental groups had continuous communication and access with Federal employees that were directly involved in the rule making process, allowing key decisions on the Roadless Initiative to be developed through extensive consultation with only a select few in the environmental community while allowing minimal input from the general public.  U.S. Forest Service representatives maintained that they have held several town meetings across the country with many comments in favor of protection of roadless areas.  The U.S. Forest Service also stated that they intend to make decisions on whether to close, build or maintain roads in national forests at the local level and under a scientific framework.  (3/14/00)

Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID) withdrew an amendment to H.R. 4578, the fiscal year 2001 Department of the Interior and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, that would have delayed President Clinton's roadless initiative until a new administration had taken office.  Craig opposes the roadless initiative due to insufficient public review time and because it would close off access to many parts of federal forests.  Because two court cases in Idaho and Washington are pending in the decision of whether or not the Clinton administration has violated open meeting laws, Craig decided to hold off on his amendment so not to do anything that might affect the outcome of the legal challenges.  After the withdrawal, Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM) inserted a less controversial amendment that calls on the U.S. Forest Service to publish a long-term strategy on how it plans to fight forest fires if new roads cannot be built.  The Domenici amendment will also grant $240 million to the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to use existing authority and cooperative agreements to remove timber and brush on public lands that are in the greatest threat of catching fire. (7/13/00)

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Forests and Public Land Management held an oversight hearing on July 26, 2000 to receive testimony on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) implementing President Clinton's roadless initiative.  The comment period for this rule concluded on July 17th.  Jim Furnish, Deputy Chief of National Forest Systems, U.S. Forest Service, was the lone witness.  Committee chairman Frank Murkowski (R-AK) began the hearing by stating that the roadless rulemaking process was botched and that it will likely be tied up in courts for years.  He wanted to send a message to the administration that the Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA) is a true commitment to conservation and that Clinton's roadless initiative "could very well drive a stake straight in the heart" of the bill.  Subcommittee chairman Larry Craig (R-ID) noted several problems with the Forest Service's rulemaking process as well as the lack of information in the DEIS for managers and the public to make adequate decisions.  He was especially concerned with the Forest Service's disparity with what is considered at risk for fire and adequate proposed measures to prevent and control the occurrence of fire.  By dint of hyperbole, he stated that with many forest fires currently raging in the West, "I hope you don't burn it all down before you leave town."  Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM) concurred with Sen. Wyden (D-OR) in his support of the roadless proposal, but argued that a more common-sense and balanced approach is needed than what is currently available.  He pronounced that more adequate measures should be taken to manage forest fires in high risk areas; such as near communities, in habitat conducive to endangered species, and in watersheds where water is used for drinking water.  Regardless of congressional concern, the policy requires no legislative action to become law, which is likely to transpire late this year.  (7/26/00)

On October 13, 1999, President Clinton directed the U.S. Forest Service to begin an open and public dialogue about the future of inventoried roadless areas within the National Forest System.  The U.S. Forest Service initiated this process on October 19, 1999 by publishing a Notice of Intent (NOI) to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in order to evaluate the appropriate level of protection, management, and use of inventoried roadless areas and other unroaded areas.

Under President Clinton's Roadless Initiative, the U.S. Forest Service is proposing new regulations to protect certain roadless areas within the National Forest System.  The proposal encompasses a roadless area initiative, a road management policy, and a planning rule which are intended to help provide for long-term sustainability, ensure collaboration with the public, and integrate science and new information into forest management and planning.  The most controversial provision of the roadless initiative is to restrict certain activities such as road construction and reconstruction in the unroaded portions of inventoried roadless areas.  Inventoried roadless areas are public forest or grasslands typically exceeding 5,000 acres that meet the minimum criteria for wilderness consideration under the Wilderness Act of 1964.  Roadless areas are designated primarily by the Roadless Area Review and Evaluation (RARE) II inventory of 1979 built on the initial RARE I study conducted in 1972, as well as by use of land and resource management plans and other assessments.

Total National Forest Service land covers 192 million acres with 54 million acres designated as inventoried roadless (see maps).  U.S. Forest Service areas without official roads usually contain rugged terrain, low value timber, or are considered ecologically sensitive.  There is currently 380,000 miles of road on National Forest Service land, with a $8.4 billion maintenance backlog.

The proposal for new regulations is in response to strong public sentiment for the protection of roadless areas and the clean water, biological diversity, wildlife habitat, forest health, dispersed recreational opportunities, and other public benefits provided by these areas.  This action also responds to budgetary concerns and the need to balance forest management objectives with funding priorities.

Others, such as International Forest Association Executive Director Jim Riley state that eliminating access to the millions of acres across the West that are infested with insects and disease and are increasingly at risk to catastrophic wildfire will make it impossible to ensure that forests, fish and wildlife habitat, property, clean water and air are protected.

The U.S. Forest Service proposed action is divided into two parts.  The first part proposes to restrict certain activities, such as road construction and reconstruction in the unroaded portions of inventoried roadless areas.  Part two would establish procedures and criteria to be used by each forest to determine what activities are consistent with the important values associated with inventoried or noninventoried roadless areas of all sizes that maintain or enhance social or ecological attributes.  A 60-day scoping and comment period, as stipulated in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), ended in December 1999.  The U.S. Forest Service completed the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) in May 2000.  More up-to-date details and a public comment form can be found on the Forest Service road management website.

The U.S. Forest Service will provide for extensive public involvement before a final environmental impact statement and final rule are issued, which is expected in late 2000.  Public comment and review is essential in order to identify significant social and scientific issues related to proposed rulemaking.  According to U.S. Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck, "We welcome and encourage public involvement, comment and debate in the analysis of this tremendous opportunity to secure for future generations our national forests and grasslands."

Sources:  USDA Forest Service, Congressional Hearing Testimony, Greenwire

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Contributed by 2000 AGI/AIPG Geoscience and Public Policy Intern Nathan Morris and Margaret Baker, AGI Government Affairs.

Posted June 12, 2000; Last Updated November 27, 2000

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