By Kim Todd
When former President Clinton announced the Roadless Area Conservation Rule in January, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups celebrated with champagne. The initiative protected 58.5 million acres of national forest land from commercial logging and new roads.
But six months later, the future of roadless areas is still in doubt. President Bush first delayed implementation of the rule, then let it stand, but suggested he would allow case-by-case challenges. The state of Idaho and Boise-Cascade sued to void the roadless policy and a judge put the rule on hold until the case was resolved. The Club and allies have appealed that decision.
As The Planet went to press, how and when the roadless rule would take effect remained up in the air.
The Club and other environmentalists feared the Bush administration would go after the policy from the moment the new president took office. In an effort to head off an attack, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) asked Ashcroft in his confirmation hearing if he would defend the rule. He said he would.
After initially postponing the rule, on May 4, the Bush administration made its intentions known: it would let the roadless rule stand, but with amendments. Specifics would follow in June, but Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman indicated what shape they might take by mentioning a desire to gather more local input and allow for decisions on a forest-by-forest basis.
Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth followed this announcement with a memo stating that until the court cases are resolved, he would act as the final authority on roadbuilding and logging in roadless areas. But once each forest plan has been revised, authority reverts to individual forest supervisors.
Some interpret this as a bid to gain logging access, as large companies hold more sway at a state level.
"The whole purpose for a national rule-making was that commercial logging was decimating our national forests," said Tanya Tolchin, associate representative in Washington, D.C. "There needed to be a national response. Deciding on a case-by-case basis undermines the rule and leaves our forests vulnerable."
In terms of local input, the more than 600 public hearings and the 1.6 million public comments on the original plan represent federal rule-making history, she said. "Hunters, anglers, scientists, religious groups, students - they all weighed in." But Bush's amendments, when released, will require a whole new round of public comment, meaning activists will need to don their "Protect Our Wild Forests" hats and sharpen their pencils once again.
Proponents of the rule expected that commercial logging and roadbuilding would be banned in the interim, but one day before the rule was scheduled to take effect on May 11, Judge Edward Lodge granted a preliminary injunction. This stalled the policy until the court case brought by Idaho and Boise-Cascade is decided. Lodge said the rule-making process violated the National Environmental Protection Act by not fully considering potential damage to industry and the environment.
The Department of Justice submitted a mere five-page brief in defense of the rule, which Lodge cited as evidence that the roadless area protections would cause "irreparable harm."
This lukewarm defense constitutes a broken promise in light of Ashcroft's confirmation hearings, said Club Executive Director Carl Pope. "We're on watch to ensure the Department of Justice fulfills its obligations to the American people."
But rather than relying on the Department of Justice, a coalition of environmental groups including the Sierra Club is mounting its own appeal of the Lodge ruling to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. If the court reverses the injunction, the rule could take effect immediately.
As the Club waits for the Bush administration's amendments and the result of the appeal, activists are keeping the roadless rule in the spotlight.
Southwest regional representative Lawson LeGate seized the moment in mid-May. When he heard that Gov. William Janklow (R) of South Dakota was going to be in Salt Lake City for a briefing on the Bush administration's plans for the roadless rule, LeGate headed out to the state Department of Natural Resources building to bird-dog. In the lobby after the briefing, Janklow launched into a 15- to 20-minute condemnation of Clinton and the roadless rule for the benefit of the audience of print and television reporters.
LeGate stood patiently by. "When he finally finished, I said to the group, 'I respectfully disagree with the governor on some of his statements,' " Legate said. "The governor responded, 'Let's go point by point,' and our debate became the news story."
In early June, Arkansas activists rallied on the steps of the capitol in Little Rock, urging Bush to defend the roadless rule in court. Others have been writing letters to the editor and letting their governors and the Forest Service know the importance of the rule, reminding them of the high level of public support.
"While we don't know what shape the administration's proposal will take, we know we need to make our voices heard once again about the importance of wild forests," said Tolchin.
For the current status of the roadless rule, see www.sierraclub.org/wildlands/wildforests.
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