Saying it needs a breather to deal with 440,000 miles of disintegrating logging roads and a $10 billion maintenance backlog, the U.S. Forest Service is proposing a moratorium on road construction in roadless areas.
The 18-month suspension doesn’t preclude logging in roadless areas. It potentially trims national forest logging by between 100 million and 275 million board feet. That reduction amounts to about half of the 405 million board feet of federal timber that the industry declined to buy in 1997.
Some of the nation’s most heavily logged national forests are exempted from the proposed moratorium. That includes the forests in Washington, Oregon and California that are being managed under President Clinton’s spotted owl plan and the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. These forests account for about 1 billion board feet of approximately 4 billion board feet of federal timber sold each year.
The proposed policy also continues to allow all other existing uses, such as snowmobiling and motorcycling - if trails exist. Timber sales already auctioned are not affected.
The Forest Service is taking public comment on the proposal for the next month. If approved by the Forest Service it will take affect in about two months.
Long term, Idaho could feel the most significant effects of the policy since it has more roadless national forest land than any other state except Alaska. In the short term, however, the Idaho Panhandle National Forests expect little change in logging.
The Colville National Forest in Eastern Washington has three timber sales in the next two years that might have to be modified.
Still, nearly everyone is angry about the Forest Service plan. Environmentalists say it’s too lax. Industry is painting it in the bleakest economic terms and politicians are frothing that the proposed policy is coming from the executive branch.
“This top-down, regressive policy ignores the real people involved - the people with the most to lose,” said Jim Riley of the Intermountain Forest Industry Association. “Although the principal target of this policy is the men and women who work in forest products businesses, it also hurts hunters, fishermen, hikers, bikers, and others who enjoy access to the forests.”
But the Forest Service says its moratorium only affects logging and allows all other uses to continue.
Instead of suspending construction in roadless areas, the “Forest Service should support modern forestry which seeks to mimic, not master, nature and support local solutions to local problems,” Riley said.
But the Forest Service insists it cannot afford the 440,000 miles of roads - about 10 times more than the interstate highway system - it has. The agency only has money to maintain 40 percent of its roads.
“We have built roads and built roads and built roads and never obtained the funds to maintain them,” said Jim Lyons, undersecretary of the Forest Service’s parent agency - the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“Roads are our biggest environmental problem.”
If there isn’t a significant change, “access or not, we’re not going to have fish to fish,” Lyons said of Riley’s comment.
The Forest Service will develop scientifically based guidelines for deciding whether to punch roads into roadless areas, he said. It also will use the 18 months to develop a long-term road plan that likely will mean fewer roads, removing problem roads, and beefing up roads that get the most public use.
Thirty percent of the Forest Service’s roads get 90 percent of the use, Lyons added. That leaves most people unaffected by shrinking the road system.
But environmentalists say the Forest Service plan hardly goes far enough. For the most part, only roadless areas 5,000 acres and larger are protected.
An independent panel of scientists strongly recommended that Washington roadless areas 1,000 acres and larger be exempted from road construction, noted Tim Coleman of the Kettle Range Conservation District.
Public opinion polls, conducted for environmental groups, show 70 percent of Washingtonians don’t want roadless areas developed, Coleman said. That belies the industry charge that local people are being ignored in the proposal.
And logging hardly mimics nature, he said, considering “nature doesn’t build logging roads or take all of the big trees,” Coleman said.
Taxpayers, meanwhile, will see the benefits of not spending money on construction and of cleaner water. For example, one area temporarily protected under the Forest Service proposal is the East Deer Creek watershed in Northeastern Washington.
The town of Orient draws its drinking water out of that creek, and yet, “we’ve had to battle over logging it for years,” Coleman said.