WASHINGTON – The Obama administration waded into a nearly decade-long debate over roadless areas in national forests Thursday, announcing what amounts to a “time out” from logging and other development projects in pristine areas across the West.
The move shifts decisions about roadless-area development away from U.S. Forest Service officials and into the hands of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who issued the new order. It effectively blocks, at least for the moment, timber sales planned in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest.
Vilsack’s order lasts for a year and can be extended for a second 12 months, which he said would “provide consistency and clarity that will help protect our national forests until a long-term roadless policy” can be developed.
Agriculture Department officials cast the order as a procedural “time out” and said they expected Vilsack to approve some projects that meet the administration’s standards for responsible forest practices.
While environmental groups praised the decision, some Republicans said it raised questions of whether the administration was politicizing an environmental issue.
The Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which President Bill Clinton issued shortly before leaving office in 2001, protected nearly 60 million acres of national forest land from logging and other development, largely in Western states. It touched off a protracted court battle that pitted conservation groups against the timber industry and several states.
The result of the legal struggle was a pair of decisions by different federal courts. One upheld the Clinton rule; the other struck it down. Both decisions are on appeal and could wind up before the Supreme Court.
As a candidate, President Barack Obama voiced support for protecting roadless areas in national forests. Since Inauguration Day, environmentalists have pressed for the time out.