Recent focus on the future of Idaho’s roadless lands has resurrected an issue critical to thousands of Idahoans and hundreds of communities dependent on national forest resources. It reveals the need to explain how we came to this point of “roadless limbo” and how many Idahoans will be affected if we don’t resolve the issue.
The future of many rural communities and hard-working individuals is tied to the future of roadless areas. To understand this, you must recognize the important role national forests play in providing forest resources in our state. While forests cover more than 40 percent of Idaho, only some areas qualify as productive timberlands where timber management and other activities are part of a regulated land management plan.
Three-fourths of Idaho’s timberlands and timber volume are located in national forests and forest businesses are indeed dependent on these resources. Yet 60 percent of the land managed by the Forest Service in Idaho is off limits to timber harvest.
Where do roadless areas fit? Just over 10 years ago, the Forest Service, with diverse public input, completed a planning process intended to resolve the controversy surrounding the future of roadless lands.
In Idaho, the final plans left 7 million acres of roadless land untouched and the remaining 2 million acres available for management under existing laws.
Those 2 million acres were earmarked to provide 28 percent of the total timber available from national forests over the next decade. This would have provided some certainty to the communities and people dependent on national forests.
But the plans quickly became food for appeals and lawsuits. Local, regional and national environmental groups, many of whom were avid participants in the planning process, blocked plan implementation on roaded as well as unroaded lands.
The timber program eroded drastically, causing several Idaho mills to close. University of Idaho studies indicate more mills will close unless federal timber is made available. Sadly, that’s not likely. Now every proposed timber sale, in or out of roadless lands, is either delayed, modified or eliminated as the result of legal or political action.
So, what should be done with roadless areas? Leaving them as they are is not an option. Forests are dynamic. Choosing not to manage our forests is a decision that will have consequences.
Scientists tell us overcrowded forests are increasingly at risk of catastrophic wildfire, insects and diseases. According to a report by UI’s Policy Analysis Group, trees on both the Boise and Payette National Forests are dying faster than they are growing due to forest health problems. Drawing a line around an area on a map won’t assure its protection and may lead to its demise.
Roads are often portrayed as destructive and useless except for timber harvest. The facts say otherwise.
Most national forest visitors use roads - many of them initially built for timber management - to camp, hunt, fish, ski or relax. Driving for pleasure is the No. 1 use of national forests.
Modern forest roads are carefully constructed to strict standards geared to terrain, moisture and soil conditions. They are assets to the forest system and contribute greatly to the quality of life people in this region enjoy and expect. Without them, far fewer Idahoans would have the opportunity to experience the magnificence of this resource.
Solutions to the roadless area situation must consider the needs of Idaho’s forests, communities and individuals. We must manage roadless areas to support the values that we all want: healthy, sustainable forest systems for today and tomorrow.