Keeping the roadless plan on track 

The protest surrounding the Clinton-mandated inventory of the nation’s remaining roadless areas has featured heavily the antics of the conservative “sagebrush rebellion,” which so far has limited its arms to shovels, failed anti-government rallies and a seemingly endless supply of bawdy Clinton one-liners.

But after the release last week of the Forest Service’s environmental impact statement on the roadless directive, in which the Forest Service recommended to still allow logging, mining, grazing and ATV use in most of the wildlands in question, voices from another perspective arose. Matthew Koehler of Missoula’s Native Forest Network encouraged citizens to go after another symbolic shovel—Smokey Bear’s.

“The Forest Service pays lip service to roadless areas,” chided Koehler. “Once again instead of listening to the American people, the Forest Service has caved in to the half-truths and wild assertions of the timber industry and other exploiters of our public national forests. … We need to take the commercial incentive out of managing our forests. If the Forest Service can’t do this, we should find someone else to manage our public lands.”

Koehler is not kidding. His organization, along with a coalition of other environmental groups, has helped put a bill on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives that would effectively end commercial logging on federal lands. The bill is far from dead-end obscurity, featuring co-sponsorship from 79 representatives, including Iowa Republican and banking and finance committee member James Leach. “We’ve got Republican bankers enthusiastic about this bill,” observed Koehler.

The bill would also revolutionize the Forest Service, creating a pool of money for worker retraining and putting Forest Service personnel to work restoring damaged ecosystems.

In the meantime, Koehler is less than optimistic that the Forest Service will change its mind and give more weight to the half-million or so comments sent in by citizens, many of them favoring less influence from extractive industry than the one ultimately chosen by the USFS. The recommendations of the Forest Service would prohibit only road-building into inventoried roadless areas, leaving open the possibility of such operations as the Rock Creek Mine, which would drill horizontally under the Cabinet Mountains, or other projects like helicopter and cable logging.

Koehler predicts the decision could exacerbate an already intense debate over scheduled timber sales, such as Otter Wing in the Nez Perce National Forest in Idaho, where timber is slated to be cut this summer. “There will be direct action there, kids up in trees, lots of signs, that sort of thing,” sighed Koehler. “It’s time to ask for what we really want; full protection for all remaining roadless areas.”

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