Conflict Over The Forest Service Proposed Roadless Plan (5/00)

The following column by GAP Senior Advisor John Dragonetti is reprinted from the May 2000 issue of The Professional Geologist, a publication of the American Institute of Professional Geologists . It is reprinted with permission.

Roadless areas within the National Forest System have been the subject of congressional hearings, lawsuits, and appeals over the past three decades.  The U.S. Forest Service defines roadless areas as those without either classified or authorized roads. During the 1970’s, the Forest Service initiated an inventory of roadless areas of 5,000 acres or larger to evaluate their wilderness character and value. Two such assessments termed Roadless Area Review and Evaluation were conducted and have been labeled RARE I and RARE II. The agency estimates that there are about 54 million acres of inventoried roadless areas, and 380,000 miles of road in its system. Forest Service areas without official roads usually include rugged terrain, are inaccessible for some other reason, have low timber values, or are considered environmentally sensitive.  However, it does appear that some areas where roads existed in the past but have reestablished forested conditions are now considered roadless. In addition, some of the areas in the initial inventory have since been congressionally designated as wilderness.

The Forest Service Proposal
In October 1999, President Clinton ordered the Forest Service to study the issue of how roadless areas within the national forest system would be managed in the future. Later in October, the agency issued a notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) to address the issue. What has created some confusion among those interested in access to forestlands is the agency's involvement in four seemingly overlapping initiatives and how these initiatives would interrelate. The four concurrent activities are a roadless area initiative, a road management policy, a planning rule, and an overall strategic plan.  The release of the EIS statement was accompanied by the announcement of a two-part process for future. Part one included a strict limitation on activities such as new road construction in inventoried roadless areas.  Part two was designed to manage inventoried roadless areas and to determine what protections should be extended to uninventoried roadless areas. The draft EIS is scheduled to be released in May 2000 to be followed by the final EIS by the end of the year.

Congressional Concern
Two subcommittees of the House Resources Committee have conducted hearings concerning the Forest Service proposals.  The hearings were held on consecutive days by the House Forests and Forest Health Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage (R-Idaho), and the House Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Barbara Cubin (R-Wyoming).  Several members of both subcommittees extensively grilled both Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck and Department of Agriculture Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Jim Lyons. Of primary concern was the congressional perception that agency plans had been formulated solely with input from the Heritage Forest Campaign, which the subcommittee leadership characterized as “extreme environmentalists.”  Both subcommittees charged that President Clinton’s announcement and the Forest Service proposals were issued without the advice or opinions of anyone except the few members of the Heritage Forest Campaign.

Forest Service Position
Agency representatives maintained that they have held numerous town meetings across the country and received thousands of public comments concerning roadless areas. Apparently many of the comments suggested the agency provide additional protection for roadless areas. Reportedly, the Forest Service plans to utilize a science-based framework for dealing with roads within the national forests, and to have the decision of whether to build, maintain or close roads made at the local level. Also indicated was the need to satisfy maintenance requirements for the existing road system at an estimated, but yet unfunded, cost of $8.4 billion. The Forest Service prefers to invest resources in projects with greater public support and fewer environmental impacts than building roads in roadless areas. There was also the hope registered that new regulations would eliminate the millions of dollars expended annually to satisfy appeals and litigation costs.

Although it is extremely unlikely that mining or oil and gas activities will take place on Forest Service roadless areas, there is concern that geologists have access to national forest lands for scientific research and to conduct field studies. However, it must be recognized that entry onto any forest service land for any purpose is only with permission from the management of the particular forest. There have been several instances where field party leaders were unaware that specific permission was necessary, especially where there had been unrestricted access in the past. Many of the access problems have come from a lack of understanding of increased Forest Service responsibilities. Their agency is now faced with much greater emphasis on the protection of drinking water sources; areas of high or unique biodiversity; areas of cultural or historic importance; areas of unique or important seasonal habitat for wildlife, fish, and plant species; and the need to provide protection against invasive, noxious, or exotic pest or weed species. Therefore the agency has become more accountable for monitoring activities on their lands.

For those interested in following the topic, keep an eye on the Forest Service road management website at With the release of the draft EIS, the accompanying comment period, the promised series of public meetings, and the intense congressional interest, the structure of the agency’s final rule is not yet forged.

This article is reprinted with permission from The Professional Geologist, published by the American Institute of Professional Geologists. AGI gratefully acknowledges that permission.

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

Contributed by John Dragonetti, AGI Government Affairs.

Posted June 7, 2000

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