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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Risch’s roadless forest plan still in play

Idaho Gov. Jim Risch wasn’t about to let a federal judge throw out an entire summer’s worth of work.

Risch has been crisscrossing the state in recent months, often with a bundle of map tubes in his vehicle. Whenever he had a spare minute, the governor would pore over the maps, trying to figure out if the state’s 275 parcels of inventoried roadless forest really ought to be kept off-limits to new development or roads.

In some cases Risch, who studied forestry at the University of Idaho and once upon a time could take apart a chain saw in the dark, visited the actual tracts of forest. Few other issues are as important to him as giving Idaho a say in how national forests within the state are managed.

“They are within the boundaries of a sovereign state,” Risch said, adding that many of the roadless tracts are loaded with diseased or beetle-killed timber. Quite simply, Risch thinks the U.S. Forest Service should do a better job of caring for forests. “It’s a criminal offense to go out there and look at this stuff, to look at a forest that is not managed.”

Last month, a judge put a stop to it all, saying the Bush Administration had no legal right to overturn President Bill Clinton’s sweeping ban on road building and development in 58 million acres of roadless national forest. The ruling came the same day Risch unveiled the plan he had developed.

Risch was unfazed. He simply took out all references to the Bush Administration, rewrote the introductory cover letter and shipped the revised package to the Department of Agriculture. He submitted his plan under an administrative rule-making process. Basically, Risch is asking for the Secretary of Agriculture to write a special federal rule that would grant Idaho sweeping powers to help manage 9.3 million acres of roadless federal forest.

“It’s an outside track,” Risch explained during a recent visit to Coeur d’Alene.

Here’s how the issue stands so far: Clinton banned road building in roadless forests; Bush overturned the ban; a federal judge then overturned Bush’s overturning of the ban; then Risch decided to carve out a separate path.

Got it? Don’t worry. Many experts are confused. Here are a few answers to some of the common questions:

Q:Will the Risch plan be stopped by the federal judge’s ruling?

A:No. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who directs federal forest policy. Any citizen, including the governor of Idaho, has the right to petition for federal rulemaking. The petition from Risch will be reviewed by an advisory panel at the end of November. “We’ll be reviewing the petitions as we would review any petition from anybody,” Rey said.

Others doubt Risch’s plan would stand up in court, especially following the ruling in California that reinstated the Clinton-era ban. Critics of state management say loads of case law prevents individual states from taking over lands that technically belong to every U.S. citizen.

Q:What about the roadless forest in Washington?

A: Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire plans to submit a petition next month, but for exactly the opposite reason, according to her Web site. Gregoire wants the state’s 2 million acres of roadless national forest to remain protected by the Clinton-era ban on new development.

Q:What’s next for Risch’s plan?

A:If the agriculture secretary approves his plan, a draft version of an Idaho-specific roadless rule will be published in the federal register. Citizens from across the nation will have between a month and 90 days to offer comments before the plan would be instituted. If it’s approved, a task force appointed by Risch will draft specific management plans for each of the state’s 275 inventoried roadless areas. These plans would trump the long-term management plans developed by the U.S. Forest Service, said Jim Caswell, administrator of Idaho’s Office of Species Conservation and former supervisor of the Clearwater National Forest.

Risch is also in the process of creating a commission to implement the rule, if it’s approved. The commission would include at least three county commissioners and would serve through 2010. According to Caswell, the group would work with the Forest Service to ensure Idaho’s ideas are implemented, “So we can get on with managing some of the places that might need management. … We want to have some ability officially to have some oversight to make sure the state’s rule does proceed to be implemented.”

Q:Would this mean new roads and logging in roadless areas?

A:Perhaps. Risch’s petition would continue to ban road building and commercial logging on about a third of the state’s roadless areas, but limited road building and logging would be allowed on about 6 million acres. The vast majority of this land would allow for only temporary road construction and limited timber harvests, but about 500,000 acres would be classified as “general forest,” where a full range of logging and permanent road building would be allowed. Caswell said the changes would not be dramatic and are mainly meant to improve forest health and protect communities from wildfire.

“It’s going to be invisible,” he predicted. “It’s not about erasing the lines around these areas and eliminating them. It’s about intelligent management of certain places.”

Jonathan Oppenheimer, who has tracked the issue for the Idaho Conservation League, said Risch’s plan is full of “unanswered questions.” Logging would be allowed for “forest health” reasons on 5.5 million acres of roadless forest in Idaho, he pointed out. “That isn’t defined anywhere. Does that mean one dead tree? A handful of dead trees? The potential that some trees could die?”

Q:How does the state plan differ from current Forest Service management plans?

A:According to Risch, it’s all about “Idaho people making Idaho decisions” for national forests. “The first change you’re going to see is no forest supervisor makes any changes without consulting what Idahoans came up with.”

Oppenheimer said the Forest Service plans are developed only after scores of public meetings in communities next to national forests. “This doesn’t represent a radical change from the existing forest plans that are out there, so it sort of begs the question, why bother with this process?” Oppenheimer said.

Q:What’s the likelihood Risch’s roadless plan will ever take effect?

A:Much depends on the outcome of a federal case in Wyoming that could uphold the Bush Administration’s roadless initiative. But there’s also the ruling from California. Dueling rulings could mean Supreme Court action, said Rey, the agriculture undersecretary. This could mean years of litigation before any changes are accepted.