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Sensible Policies Benefit All Interests

Fiscal conservatives and environmentalists generally don’t crawl into bed together. So, when both groups agree on an issue, it’s time to pay attention.

The improbable alliance supports a bill sponsored by U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev., calling for an end to federal subsidies for road construction on national forests. It will be debated next month along with legislation by U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., that seeks to expand current road subsidies of $100 million annually.

Conservatives argue persuasively against subsidizing timber companies during these tight budgetary times; besides, the U.S. Forest Service is, conservatively, $440 million behind in road maintenance. Meanwhile, environmentalists decry the damage caused by road construction in sensitive mountain areas.

Both groups make good points. But the move to end the subsidies cold turkey seems extreme.

Forest roads provide a public benefit not reflected in the timber industry’s bottom line. The National Forest road system not only is crucial to provide jobs and a valuable commodity, it also opens the back country to huckleberry pickers, hunters, fishermen, campers and backpackers. It provides access to fight forest fires. And it can be used again over decades to re-harvest sites.

Yet, there’s no question that forest roads menace wildlife, particularly fish. Failed roads smother fish habitat and dam streams, worsening floods like those in Idaho the past two winters. The USFS blamed logging roads for 70 percent of Idaho’s 422 landslides during 1995-96 storms.

The national forest road system, with 380,000 miles - or eight times more miles than America’s interstate highway system - is too big to maintain now. The Forest Service, working closely with local areas, should close or obliterate marginal roads and fix sections of its system that pose a stream hazard.

The Forest Service need only check its maintenance records to show where it should begin.

Road removal, where appropriate, will provide jobs.

Funding for such projects can be found, in part, by reining in road-building subsidies. Timber companies pay to construct roads on private land. They should be expected to pick up more of the tab for access to public land. Then, the industry would have to think twice before bulldozing a road into a sensitive area.

The time has come to shine a light on this controversial subsidy. Let the debate begin. , DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = D.F. Oliveria/For the editorial board

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