by Rob Chaney of the Missoulian
For more than three decades, millions of Montana federal acres have been de facto wilderness.
Over the past few weeks, those slumbering lands have been shoved back into the spotlight. And last Wednesday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declared the nation’s 40 million acres of “inventoried roadless lands” were properly protected by a 2001 Clinton administration prohibition on development.
But the 10th Circuit Court in Wyoming is deliberating on a mirror-reverse case, where a lower-court judge has declared the Clinton rule is wrong. That would leave standing a subsequent Bush administration rule allowing states to make their own rules governing federal roadless land.
And in between, Sen. Jon Tester’s proposed Forest Jobs and Recreation Act might open 1 million acres of Montana roadless land to logging, according to some of its critics.
Montana has 6.4 million acres of inventoried roadless lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service. They include virtually all the trailheads into the Bitterroot Mountains and around the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and the headwaters of Rock Creek’s blue-ribbon trout stream. It’s the third-highest total in the continental United States.
The Forest Service started inventorying roadless public lands in the 1970s, in response to the Wilderness Act of 1964. Some of those acres were converted to outright wilderness. Some were released for logging or other development. The rest have essentially lived in limbo.
“We haven’t acted either way as far as entering them or not entering them,” Forest Service Region 1 spokeswoman Rose Davis said. “For the rest of the forest areas that are not inventoried roadless, we can manage them according to the forest plan, as recommended wilderness, for timber harvest, for recreation or multiple use.”
But management decisions on roadless lands are passed on to Washington, D.C. The conflicting circuit court opinions prompted Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on May 28 to move all roadless land decisions directly to his office. USDA spokesman Justin DeJong said that should allow more consistency in their management until the courts provide clarity.
“The Obama administration supports conservation of roadless areas in our national forests and the 9th District decision reaffirms the protection of these resources,” DeJong said Friday. “We are actively exploring this positive development and how it intersects with the various roadless discussions taking place around the country.”
“A lot of the higher-elevation scenic country was designated as wilderness – the lake basins and things like that,” said Tim Preso, a staff attorney for Earthjustice who’s spent much of the past nine years litigating the federal roadless rule. “But lower elevations, which are more ecologically productive, were left out. The roadless inventory reflects that.
“These are backcountry areas, and there’s a reason they haven’t been logged after 100 years of Forest Service management. They’re either too expensive to get to or poor quality trees. They should be protected from further development.”
And that’s the worry of folks like Alliance for the Wild Rockies director Michael Garrity. As he reads Sen. Tester’s draft bill, nearly 1 million acres of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest’s inventoried roadless lands would be up for development.
“They announced the bill at RY Timber (a lumber mill in Townsend),” Garrity said. “RY isn’t in the business of restoring and recovering Forest Service lands. They’re in the business of logging.”
Tester’s bill calls for “treatment” of 7,000 acres a year on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, in addition to several thousand more acres in the Yaak and Seeley-Swan areas covered by the legislation. The bill defines “treatment” 12 separate ways, ranging from commercial logging to road removal and tree planting.
Garrity pointed to Tester’s own “Proposed Lands Designations” map that marks future wilderness in green, recreation areas in purple, and “timber suitable or open to harvest” acreage in yellow. Those yellow zones overlay big swaths of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge’s 1.7 million acres of inventoried roadless lands. For example, a large chunk of the Gravelly Mountains now listed as inventoried roadless are colored yellow on Tester’s map.
“He (Tester) is letting the Forest Service decide where to log, and giving them the option of going into roadless areas,” Garrity said. “He’s not mandating, but he’s giving them that option.”
Tester spokesman Aaron Murphy responded that “there is nothing in the legislation directing any activity that is inconsistent with the roadless rule.”
Congressional legislation generally trumps administrative rules, so S.1470’s requirement for annually treated acres could short-circuit federal roadless lands protections. But the bill also specifically says lands for treatment will be chosen “consistent with laws (including regulations) and forest plans.” It also gives priorities to lands already marked by roads and timber harvest.
“I think this is a good step to protecting these roadless areas,” said Jared White of the Wilderness Society, one of the groups that helped author Tester’s bill. “I don’t think the purpose of this bill is to log them. The bill creates jobs with commercial wood projects and with forest restoration projects. There’s no clear distinction whether one overrules the other.”
On the other side of the debate, Montanans for Multiple Use vice president Jerry O’Neil doubts any more logs will be coming to market from roadless lands.
“It (the roadless inventory) was supposed to be there to study and determine whether those lands were put into wilderness or given back so they could be managed,” O’Neil said. “It doesn’t look to me like they were ever going to allow them to be managed.”
In O’Neil’s opinion, Tester’s bill grants wilderness in perpetuity but can’t deliver equal guarantees of jobs or lands to log. Where Garrity sees an open door to more logging, O’Neil expects to be shut out of more timberlands.
On the recreation corner of the triangle, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership spokesman Joel Webster said the roadless tide was favoring hunters and anglers. Those inventoried lands are prime wildlife habitat.
“What the roadless rule does is create a floor for management of these roadless areas,” Webster said Friday. “It helps us maintain Montana’s five-week, over-the-counter big game hunting season. Look at states like Oregon, where they have roads everywhere and you generally have to apply for a tag in a season that lasts less than a week.”
The Obama administration is expected to make its case to the 10th Circuit Court in Wyoming later this month. When he was a senator, Barack Obama supported legislation that would have fortified the 2001 Clinton rule. At Earthjustice, Preso said now-President Obama could make the case moot by simply sticking with that position.
“But in the larger analysis,” Preso said, “over course of the legal fight, the terms of debate have shifted. When the 2001 rule was being debated, the issue was whether to protect or to log for commercial value. Now, almost a decade later, nobody’s talking about that any more. Now the debate is about how much to protect them.”