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December 1999 Planet Main
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The Planet

60 Million Acres!
Clinton Initiative Could Protect Last Wild Forests

by Jenny Coyle

The Clinton administration's newly announced plan to safeguard the nation's remaining roadless areas could preserve more land than any proposal since the 1980 Alaska Lands Act, which protected more than a million acres of parks, refuges and forests.

"We have a real reason to be optimistic and hopeful that this will be one of the greatest conservation actions in American history," said Jennifer Ferenstein, a national Sierra Club Board member and Montana forest activist. "President Clinton is saying he has the political will to do this, and if the public weighs in strongly, he'll move ahead with it. It provides us with an astounding opportunity."

Clinton directed the U.S. Forest Service to study options to protect roadless areas of 5,000 acres or more. The agency will also determine whether protection is warranted for smaller roadless areas (most roadless areas east of the Mississippi are less than 5,000 acres) and whether Alaska's Tongass National Forest should be included. If the smaller roadless areas and the Tongass are included, the total amount of land protected could be more than 60 million acres.

The Clinton administration has not fleshed out which activities, besides roadbuilding, will be banned from designated lands. "We haven't narrowed the scope of what we're looking for," said Cindy Chojnacky, public affairs officer on the Forest Service roadless-area study team. "The purpose now is to see what people's issues are."

The Sierra Club is clear about what it wants.

"We need to protect our national forests from logging and other destructive activities," said Melanie Griffin, director of the Sierra Club's Lands Protection Program. "This means no new road construction, mining, oil and gas development or off-road vehicle use. That's the message the Sierra Club has been conveying all along, and apparently we're being heard. This proposal could safeguard clean drinking water for rural communities, protect habitat for grizzly bears and other wildlife and preserve recreational activities."

Public input on this first step is being taken until Dec. 20. Additional opportunities to make comments will come before the study is finalized. The administration expects a recommendation from the Forest Service in late fall 2000.

"This is a highly politicized issue being played out in an election year," said Ferenstein, "but the process incorporates so much public input and sound science that it will be difficult to undo - even if an anti-environmental president lands in the White House in 2000."

Announcing his plan from the George Washington and Jefferson national forests in Virginia on Oct. 13, Clinton said the proposal reflects the will of the American people, who want to see more lands preserved.

"Only 5 percent of our country's timber comes from the national forests," he said. "Less than 5 percent of the national forests' timber is now being cut in roadless areas. We can easily adjust our federal timber program to replace 5 percent of 5 percent, but we can never replace what we might destroy if we don't protect these 40 million acres."

The Forest Service more or less prepared for such a proposal when, in March 1998, agency Chief Mike Dombeck announced a moratorium on roadbuilding in most existing roadless areas. The Club mobilized national grassroots support to broaden the moratorium, including working with other groups to gather and deliver 200,000 postcards calling for permanent protection of these last wild forests. Forest Service staff say the president's new proposal is right in line with Dombeck's own vision for the land.

"The leadership of the Forest Service has been advocating for quite a while now that these issues needed to be looked into," Chris Wood, Dombeck's senior policy advisor in Washington, D.C., told The Planet. "We've begun a public dialogue but we haven't said we're going to protect 40 or 60 or 20 million acres. Are we supportive of protecting part of it? Yes. Are we prejudging the outcome? No."

"This is democracy at work," Wood added. "If you care about forests and you care about conservation and making sure that we're passing on a living and vibrant land legacy, you'll actively engage in this process."

It's important, because timber industry lobbyists are already at work trying to stop or weaken the plan, said the Club's Griffin. And anti-environmental members of Congress have deemed it a "flimflam game" - as Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) called it at a Senate hearing - and are working to obstruct the process.

The House Resources Committee, under the chairmanship of Don Young (R-Alaska), immediately ordered the White House and U.S. Department of Agriculture to turn over all documents, phone records, memos, e-mails, video and audio cassettes and anything else that has to do with the issue.

"Harassment" is how a congressional staffer, who asked to remain anonymous, described the committee's request.

But then, said Wood, "You'd have to have your eyes closed and be rolled up in a ball for the past 20 years if you're thinking this would not be a challenge."

Griffin said the Sierra Club will rise to the challenge. As The Planet went to press, activists were testifying at hearings about the proposal from Atlanta, Ga., to Missoula, Mont., and a massive postcard campaign is under way to send a loud, clear message to the White House.

"We expect fierce attacks from Congress and the timber industry, but we've beaten them back before," she said. "We'll be working to build up a huge amount of support for the president's policy in order to defend it when it's attacked."

 


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