prepared by Mike Anderson, The Wilderness Society
The final roadless area conservation rule prohibits road building and logging in national forest roadless areas with some exceptions, such as logging to reduce the risk of unnaturally intense fires. The rule covers all 58.5 million acres of inventoried national forest roadless areas, including those in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. The rule allows a substantial amount of previously planned logging to continue in the Tongass, but prohibits roadless area logging thereafter. No road building is allowed for oil and gas drilling or ski area development in roadless areas, except within areas already under lease or permit. The rule will not close any roads or trails, and it will not restrict off-road vehicle use or access to non-federal land inholdings within roadless areas.
Why do we care? This photo shows the Cove/Mallard “Roadless Area” as managed before the new Roadless Area Conservation Rule. Bush and Western Republicans want to reinstate this approach to “conservation.” Read about their rollback dreams.
Controversy over the fate of national forest roadless areas dates back more than two decades. In January 1998, U.S. Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck proposed a moratorium on road building in most inventoried roadless areas. After extensive public comment, the 18-month moratorium was adopted in February 1999. On October 13, 1999, President Clinton instructed the Forest Service to conduct a rulemaking to provide long-term protection for roadless areas. The Forest Service issued a draft rule and environmental impact statement for public comment in May 2000 and submitted a final proposal on November 9. During the rulemaking and environmental review process, the Forest Service held more than 600 public meetings and received a record 1.7 million comments, overwhelmingly supporting roadless area protection.
On January 5, 2001, President Clinton and Chief Dombeck announced the final rule on national forest roadless area conservation. The final rule and record of decision were published in the Federal Register on January 12 (66 Fed. Reg. 3244). The rule is scheduled to take effect on March 13.
Key Elements of Final Rule
Inventoried Roadless Areas. The final rule provides administrative protection for approximately 58.5 million acres of national forest roadless areas identified in past Forest Service inventories. The inventoried roadless areas are located in 38 states and Puerto Rico.
Road Building. The final rule generally prohibits road construction and reconstruction in inventoried roadless areas. Exceptions to the road building prohibition allow for access to non-federal land inholdings and for hard-rock mineral exploration and development. Other exceptions include roads needed for public safety and environmental clean-up, as well as federal highway projects.
Logging. The final rule prohibits logging in roadless areas for the sake of timber production but allows logging for some other purposes, provided that it can be done without building new roads. Probably the most important exception is for logging of “generally small diameter” trees to reduce the risk of unnaturally large or intense wildfires. The primary effect of this exception is likely to be in low-elevation ponderosa pine forests of the Intermountain West. The rule also permits logging to improve habitat for imperiled species. In addition, logging can continue within portions of any roadless area that have been roaded and logged since the time the area was inventoried (in many cases inventories were conducted in the early 1980s). Approximately 2.8 million acres of inventoried roadless areas could be affected by this exception, or about 5 percent of the 58.5 million acres of roadless areas. Any roadless area timber sales for which records of decision have been issued would be allowed to proceed.
Tongass National Forest. The final rule includes the 9.3 million acres of roadless areas in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest in the ban on road building and logging, but it allows a considerable amount of already planned logging to continue. The rule exempts Tongass timber sales for which the Forest Service has already completed a draft environmental impact statement. This exemption could allow up to 386 million board feet (mmbf) of roadless area timber sales, in addition to 261 mmbf of roadless area sales already under contract but not yet logged. Together with 204 mmbf of timber sales in roaded areas of the Tongass, that is sufficient timber to supply likely market demand in southeast Alaska for the next seven years.
Oil and Gas. The final rule allows for road building in roadless areas that are currently leased for oil and gas (and for other leasable minerals such as coal and phosphate). However, it does not permit road building for oil and gas exploration or development in areas that are not already under lease. The exception also allows road building in connection with mineral leases that are renewed immediately following expiration.
Ski Areas. The final rule allows road building associated with ski area development only within the existing boundaries of special use permit areas. Roads cannot be built to expand current ski areas or to develop new areas.
Off-Road Vehicles and Access. The final rule does not close any roads or trails or otherwise restrict existing access to roadless areas for ORVs or other recreational uses. Access to state and private land inholdings will also not be affected. Maintenance of classified roads in inventoried roadless areas can continue.