Western Republican lawmakers threatened steep cuts in the Forest Service’s budget Wednesday if it imposes an 18-month moratorium on logging road construction in roadless areas.
But squeezing the Forest Service will only magnify the need for a road construction moratorium, considering the agency has a $10 billion maintenance backlog on its 440,000 miles of road, environmentalists say.
The Forest Service proposed the moratorium last month, estimating it will mean the agency will sell a maximum of 275 million fewer board feet of timber. By comparison, the timber industry didn’t buy 405 million board feet of trees offered by the Forest Service in 1997. More than 6.4 billion board feet of timber have been sold but left uncut in national forests, agency officials said.
That hasn’t quieted the vitriol from opposing politicians. Wednesday, several GOP committee chairmen accused the administration of pandering to environmentalists by proposing the moratorium.
“If you want to get their attention, (the budget) is the best way,” Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, chairman of the House Resources Committee, said at a news conference.
Western Republicans have been at odds with President Clinton’s natural resource policies since he took office in 1993. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, said the proposed roads moratorium in most areas of national forests without roads was “a bit of the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“I sense they wanted a political issue for the 1998 election,” said Craig, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee on forests and public lands.
Young said the Forest Service doesn’t need its $3.3 billion budget if it is going to produce only about one-fourth the level of timber from national forests that it harvested in the 1980s. That statement appears to contradict the usual argument from western Republicans that Forest Service logging pays for itself and costs taxpayers nothing.
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth grilled Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck during the hearing.
“It used to be the Congress set policy, and the agency carried out the policy,” said Chenoweth, R-Idaho, chairwoman of the House Resources subcommittee on forests and forest health. “This administration believes it is above the law.”
Chenoweth said she suspects Vice President Al Gore is behind the road-building policy. But Dombeck said the idea originated with himself and his staff as a reflection of concerns about the condition of the 373,000 miles of roads in national forests.
“The road system we have today is tremendously larger than what we can afford,’ Dombeck testified. Road construction can cause increased frequency of flooding and landslides, and increased sedimentation of streams.
“Roads leave a lasting imprint on the landscape,” he said, pointing to a $10.5 billion backlog in maintenance needs,” Dombeck said. “What I have proposed is essentially a time-out on road building in many unroaded areas until Congress, the administration and the American people can engage in a constructive dialogue about when and where roads will be built in our national forests,” Dombeck said.
The public-comment period on the moratorium will be extended until March 30, he said.