Politics trumps public opinion in forest battle--for now
The Clinton administration elicited an outpouring of public support when it proposed a ban on roadbuilding, logging, and other destructive activities on 58.5 million roadless acres of national forest. An unprecedented 1.6 million Americans weighed in with written remarks--nearly quadrupling the record set by the 1998 debate on
organic-food standards--and thousands spoke up at 600 hearings nationwide. Fully 95 percent of respondents favored the broad protection ultimately enacted in January as the Roadless Area Conservation Rule.
But the Bush administration failed to hear their resounding message. When the state of Idaho and timber giant Boise Cascade sued to block implementation of the law, the Department of Justice rolled over. "Instead of defending its rule, the government offered only bland statements about its intent to revisit the roadless issue, saying that there was no need for the court to act in the interim," says Timothy Preso, an attorney with the Earthjustice environmental-law firm.
Boise Cascade won the first round in May, when U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge issued a preliminary injunction that allowed roadbuilding and logging until the court case is settled. In his decision, Lodge wrote that the
rule-making procedure "was grossly inadequate and thus
deprived the public of any meaningful dialogue or input"--which must have been news to the many Americans who made their opinions known over the three-year planning process.
The Bush administration added further insult by declining to
appeal Lodge's decision, even though Attorney General John Ashcroft had promised to defend the roadless rule in his confirmation hearings. In anticipation of this apathy, Earthjustice filed an appeal in May on behalf of the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, and six other environmental organizations. If they succeed in overturning the injunction this fall, the roadless rule will take effect immediately, but it may not be permanent. At press time, the original court case--and the fate of the forests--was not expected to be decided before next year.
While environmentalists mustered their legal defense of the roadless rule, the Forest Service began trying to revise it, opening
a new 60-day public comment
period that ended September 10. "We're not devaluing the comments that we got from the original comment period, but asking the types of questions that were not addressed during the preparation of the January rule," says Heidi Valetkevitch, a media spokesperson for the Forest Service. "There's a good portion of people who feel they were cut out of that process."
If the Bush administration wants to write its own rule, it will have to consider this round of comments, issue a new draft, and send that out for public review. But the pace of this new public process may hinge on what happens in the Idaho courts. If environmentalists win their legal battle, Preso says, "the government might move more quickly to amend the rule. If we lose, they could just sit on their hands." Again.--Jennifer Hattam