Treehuggers International

Exploring the Roadless Area Conservation Rule

September 6th, 2010

Mike Anderson from the Wilderness Society

Treehuggers International is very pleased to welcome Mike Anderson, the Senior Resource Analyst from the Wilderness Society’s Pacific Northwest office in Seattle, to talk about roadless areas and the Wilderness Society’s role in the creation of the Roadless Area Conservation Rule.

Special thanks to Greg MacArthur and the staff at the CBS Radio cluster in Seattle for their assistance in helping make this program possible. Additional thanks to Andrea Imler at the Wilderness Society.

Entering the Buckhorn Wilderness via the Dungeness River Valley, Olympic Peninsula.

Vast Expanses

Some 58 million acres of National Forest lands in the United States are made up of inventoried roadless areas. These are areas where no marked inroads of civilization have occurred, and the land remains in a truly wild, primitive state. The character of these lands ranges from vast expanses of apparent nothingness, to high-value aesthetic and natural resource-laden lands, often adjoining National Parks or designated Wilderness. The drinking water of 60 million Americans begins in some 2,000 watersheds in the nation’s National Forests, and most of those watersheds are in roadless areas.

In the case of roadless areas, a road is described as any kind of thruway constructed for motor vehicle use, generally intended for mining or logging operations on public land.  While paved roads also cross National Forests, most forest roads are dirt or gravel in varying degrees of maintenance, and were typically built for the intention of resource extraction over a limited period of time.

Unless specifically signed otherwise, generally in the case of mining and logging operations, roads may be used by the public to access recreational trailheads for hiking, camping, hunting, fishing, and backpacking. Forest roads are also permitted for off-road vehicle use. In fact, over the last 10 years, off-road vehicles have become an increasingly frequent sight on National Forest roads. In some cases, individual National Forests have re-graded or even re-routed hiking trails in order to make them accessible to off-road vehicles (off-roaders typically pay larger fees for National Forest use), thereby modifying a trail into a road.

More Miles Than the Interstate Highway System

Because of the primitive nature of many of the 386,000 miles of Forest Service roads, in 1967 the Forest Service began cataloging every roadless area in the National Forests for consideration as Wilderness. According to the 1964 Wilderness Act, areas to be considered for Wilderness designation must be “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man,” and where no human activity or infrastructure building has occurred. While an addendum to the Wilderness Act in 1975 does allow for some previous modification by man for eastern National Forests, the rule of thumb is, if there’s a road, the area is no longer wilderness by definition, and therefore, cannot be considered.

While some Forest Service managers and resource extraction operations have deliberately constructed roads in order to negate an area from wilderness consideration, the road-building process is generally tightly-controlled because of the expense the Forest Service must put forward in the years after the road is built for maintenance, and to a lesser extent, safety.  Simply building a road brings with it issues of erosion and resource degradation, and over time traffic on these roads leads to litter, pollution of adjoining waterways, increased amounts of silt, species loss, and what is politely described as the loss of “aesthetic” appeal.

Today, the Forest Service has infinitely more miles of roads on its hands than it can possibly afford to maintain, and a movement has been afoot to allow some seldom-used roads with little or no trailhead access or remaining resource use to “go back to nature” by no longer mainitaining them. However, with the rise in popularity of thrillcraft and other off-road vehcies which can literally scale mountains and chew across the land, leaving vast swaths of ruts in their wake (something the first dirtbike enthusiasts never dreamed of and likely never intended 60 years ago), abandoned or seldom-maintained forest roads still enable entry for ORVs into primitive, wilderness-quality backcountry areas.  If a roadless area is severely compromised by unregulated or illegal ORV use, it too, may no longer be considered “untrammeled by man” and removed from wilderness consideration.

Former U.S.F.S. Chief Mike Dombeck

Beginning in 1998, under the leadership of supervisor Michael Dombeck, the Forest Service undertook its most intensive public policy discussions and comment periods since the 1960s in order to come up with a cohesive plan for managing National Forest roadless areas.

More meetings were held and feedback cards returned than any other project undertaken by the Forest Service since the initial passage of the Wilderness Act, and the response from communities and citizens around the nation called for a steep reduction in the amount of new roads constructed into roadless areas, and for remaining roadless areas to remain wild.

Roadless Area Conservation Rule

In what became the most far-reaching federal land management document since the Wilderness Act, the resulting roadless study was presented to President Bill Clinton on January 12, 2001, and adopted by the Department of Agriculture, the parent agency of the U.S. Forest Service. Detailing a plan to conserve 58 million acres of National Forest areas from almost all logging and road construction, the Roadless Area Conservation Rule did not specifically put a moratorium on new road-building or set aside all roadless areas from potential development, but it did call for current roadless areas to remain wild and subject to Wilderness consideration, and for old forest roads to “go back to nature” with new bans on road construction, logging, and mining.

Despite the immense savings to taxpayers with the abandonment of no-longer needed forest roads, the new administration of President George W. Bush put the Roadless Rule on hold with days of taking office, saying it wanted to explore other options in the implementation of the act. In 2005 the Bush administration put forward a convoluted plan to allow state governments to designate their own roadless areas, which required governors to petition the federal government if they wanted to protect National Forest areas in their states, reducing the in-depth, three-year Forest Service study and public comment workshop to a mere guide for consideration.

The following year, the Bush plan was struck down by a federal court, which said it “established a new regime in which management of roadless areas within the national forests would, for the first time, vary not just forest by forest but state by state. This new approach raises a substantial question about the rule’s potential effect on the environment.” The same court followed up its initial ruling two months later with a ban on road construction in connection with hundreds of oil and gas leases issued by the Bush administration in areas which would have been protected under the Roadless Rule in Colorado, Utah, and North Dakota, a result of Vice President Cheney’s secret meetings with the nation’s commercial energy leaders in 2001.

Demand Permanent Protection for Wild, Roadless Areas

Currently, Agriculture Secretary Mike Vilsack has been granting the Roadless Rule yearlong extensions, and while we at Treehuggers International appreciate the administration’s willingness to at least abandon Bush-era plans for roadless management, the science and public response detailed in the roadless study remain intact, and to us, trumps all else, and should be enacted as it was intended at the end of 2000. The current trend of yearlong extensions simply appears designed to leave this thoughtful piece of science, management, and policy in a state of permanent limbo.

So lace up your boots this week and head into a roadless area near you, and after experiencing the wild character of your chosen locale, go home and write a letter to your elected officials in Washington D.C. and urge them to lean on the Obama administration to adopt the Roadless Rule in full.

The Forest Service has done a great job of modernizing their website and making information more accessible, and you can click HERE to see a list of inventoried roadless areas to find one near you.

Find the address for your U.S. Senator HERE and Representative HERE, and remember, while e-mails are convenient, nothing beats a phone call or an actual letter, hand-signed and sent in the mail to your lawmaker.

Some natural sound mixed into this show courtesy of Richard Nelson and Salmon In the Trees.

Namesake Kalmiopsis leachiana in the Kalmiopsis Roadless Area, Siskiyou National Forest.

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Elk move across the Rapid River roadless area, Nez Perce National Forest.

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