BOISE — Although 9.3 million acres of roadless national forest lands in Idaho are being considered for potential development, officials soliciting proposed changes to U.S. Forest Service management plans say a much smaller chunk would actually be altered by logging, road building or other projects.
“Probably tens of thousands of acres at best,” James Caswell, a former national forest supervisor who now heads Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s species conservation office, told the Idaho Statesman newspaper.
Caswell is assisting county commissioners across the state as they hold meetings to gather public comment on how to best manage the national forest land within their boundaries for recreation, economic development, wildlife, tourism and preservation of scenic beauty.
The comments will form the basis of county recommendations that Kempthorne wants by the end of the year, before he submits a state petition to the U.S. Department of Agriculture on suggested changes to the status of roadless areas on the 10 national forests in Idaho.
In May, the Bush administration overturned a rule that former President Clinton had used to protect the nation’s 58.5 million acres of pristine woodlands from commercial uses. Governors may now petition to nullify land-use plans that stopped development or to have the Forest Service create new plans allowing development.
Kempthorne helped trigger the policy switch when he and the state filed suit against the Clinton-era roadless rule in 2001, arguing the federal government had not included states as partners in the process.
Some western states oppose the rule change. Two weeks ago, California, New Mexico and Oregon sued the Bush administration over the decision, alleging that it will shift a huge financial burden from the federal government to the states and that it paves the way for logging, mining and other resource extraction that would forever damage some of the last pristine portions of America’s national forests.
The Forest Service says it has a $660 million backlog of road maintenance and improvement projects in Idaho, where there are 34,000 miles of national forest roads.
Valley County Commissioner Phil Davis of Cascade said limited access to other areas of national forests has hampered the ability to log and thin timber stands to protect against fire and insect infestation.
And while counties welcome input from nonresidents, Davis said he believes local officials best understand the changes needed to the management plans.
“My take is the people who live in the area are going to know more specifics about the areas than people from somewhere else,” he said.
Jonathan Oppenheimer of the Idaho Conservation League said the statewide environmental group is organizing its members to participate in each county’s process and eventually relay suggestions directly to Kempthorne.
“We are participating to raise awareness of the important values of roadless and educate other Idahoans about the importance of roadless for wildlife, clean water and recreation,” Oppenheimer said.
If Kempthorne submits a petition for suggested changes to the roadless area management plans by the 18-month deadline that started in May — by October 2006 — Idaho would be the first state to try the new process.
There’s no guarantee any of the state’s suggested changes will be made. Under the Bush rule, the Agriculture secretary will appoint a national committee to review the state petition and then make his own determination.
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