By Tommy Hough
Treehuggers International is pleased to welcome Mike Anderson, senior resource analyst from the Pacific Northwest office of The Wilderness Society in Seattle, to talk about the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule and the Wilderness Society's role in the creation of what has become known as the Roadless Rule.
Some 58 million acres of National Forest lands in the United States are made up of catalogued and inventoried roadless areas. These are areas where no marked inroads of civilization have occurred, and the land remains in a primitive state.
The character of these lands ranges from vast expanses of open space, to high-value aesthetic and natural resource-laden lands, often adjoining National Parks, National Monuments or designated Wilderness areas. The drinking water of 60 million Americans begins in some 2,000 watersheds in the nation's National Forests, many of which 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 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
By 1967, it had become clear to the U.S. Forest Service that their operational edict of "mulitple use" had far superseded the ability of nature and the land to keep pace with the ongoing level of resource extraction. Because of the primitive nature of many of the 386,000 miles of Forest Service roads in the U.S. at that time, the agency began cataloging every roadless area under Forest Service management for consideration as Wilderness.
According to the Wilderness Act of 1964, 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 has been if there's a road, the area is no longer wilderness by definition, and therefore, cannot be considered for designation as such (so-called "cherry stem" approaches have alleviated some of this disqualification).
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 agency 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 vehicles 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), 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 therefore removed from wilderness consideration.
Beginning in 1998, under the leadership of agency supervisor Michael Dombeck, the U.S. Forest Service undertook the most intensive public policy discussion and comment period in over 35 years 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 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 days before he left office on Jan. 12, 2001, and adopted by the Department of Agriculture – the parent agency of the U.S. Forest Service.
Detailing a plan to conserve tens of millions of acreage in National Forests 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 does 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.
In short, the Roadless Rule:
While ensuring a basic level of protection for remaining wild areas managed by the U.S. Forest Service, the Roadless Rule:
But 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 within days of taking office in January 2001, indicating it wanted to "explore" other options in the implementation of the plan.
Later, 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, i.e. reducing the in-depth, three-year Forest Service study and public comment period into 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 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 that 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 early 2001.
We Need Permanent Protection for Roadless Areas
Currently, Secretary of Agriculture Mike Vilsack has been granting the Roadless Rule yearlong extensions, and while we at Treehuggers International appreciate the Obama administration's abandonment of Bush-era plans to "modify" the Roadless Rule, the plan's initial science remains sound and the public response detailed in the roadless study remains intact. To us, this trumps all else. The Roadless Rule 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 to 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 good job of modernizing their website and making information more accessible. You can now quickly find a list of inventoried roadless areas near you, and while you're at it, send a note to your U.S. Senators or Representatives asking them to demand permanent authorization of the Roadless Rule. Remember, while e-mails are convenient, nothing beats an actual letter, hand-signed and sent via mail to your lawmaker.
Some of the natural sounds mixed into this show are courtesy of Richard Nelson and Salmon In the Trees. Special thanks to Greg MacArthur and the team at CBS Radio in Seattle for their assistance with this program. Additional thanks to Andrea Imler at the Wilderness Society.
Photos by Tommy Hough.
A former San Diego broadcaster and media personality, Tommy Hough is a wilderness and conservation advocate, communications professional, California Democratic Party delegate, and the co-founder and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action. He ran as the endorsed Democratic candidate for San Diego City Council in District 6 in 2018.