Roadless Rhetoric 

Debunking the myths behind a Forest Service “land grab”

Last week marked the one-year anniversary of the U.S. Forest Service’s 18-month moratorium on building roads on 33 million acres of national forest land, a decision based on the logic that it’s economically and environmentally irresponsible to build new roads when you’ve got an $11 billion backlog on maintaining the old ones already in place. Still, it was a controversial proposal that had its opponents shouting “land grab!”—the same refrain now being echoed in response to an unrelated initiative by President Clinton, announced in October 1999, to set aside about 40 million acres of roadless areas nationwide, including nearly 6 million acres in Montana.

When the road-building moratorium first appeared on the timber industry’s radar screens, it unleashed a barrage of doom and gloom predictions about lost jobs, public access denied into the national forests and the loss of life and property to wildfire. But the question remains, how many of those predictions were gross exaggerations, or failed to materialize entirely?

For example, in February 1998 the Missoula-based Intermountain Forest Industry Association distributed a “hot sheet” claiming that the Forest Service’s “land grab” would deny citizens access to millions of acres of public lands, would lead to “catastrophic fires that burn whole forests, kill wildlife, destroy watersheds, and threaten human lives and property.” The moratorium, they said, would also create “community instability caused by even further decreases in timber harvest from public lands,” and would eventually lead to the loss of some 12,640 jobs.

Two years later, the numbers tell a different story. Or so says Matthew Koehler of the Missoula-based Native Forest Network, who has been waging a campaign against the misinformation that he says is still being circulated—and accepted without question—by the mainstream media.

“The timber industry has a long history of making exaggerated claims about job loss associated with the protection of Montana’s wildlands,” says Koehler. “But according to the Forest Service, 80 percent of these roadless lands don’t even have any timber on them. They’re all rock and ice, or if they have timber, they’re really small lodgepole pines that are growing out of a rock at 10,000 feet. … Let’s face it. If there was lots of old growth up there, the timber industry would be up there.”

As Koehler points out, Montana’s mill closures and job layoffs in the wood products industry have had far less to do with federal land management decisions than they have with global economics and mechanization in the timber industry. For example, in 1979 it took five workers to produce the same amount of wood products that it takes three workers to produce today.

Moreover, only 3.3 percent of our wood products come from national forests—we throw away four times that amount each year—a fact reflected in the number of jobs directly associated with logging on public land. According to a recent economic analysis prepared by University of Montana economics Professor Tim Power, “Forest Service timber harvests in the late 1990s have been directly responsible for about one percent of jobs and income in the northwest Montana counties in which the wood products industry is concentrated. For the state as a whole, the economic reliance is much smaller.”

And while one percent of the jobs in a nine-county area (or about 1,450 jobs) is not insignificant, during that same period this region has been adding between 5,000 and 6,000 other jobs each year, or about four times as many as the total impact of Forest Service harvests.

As for the claims that the road-building moratorium has been detrimental to healthy forests and effective fire management, a study conducted by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection showed that the practice of logging, more than any other human activity, has increased both the severity and the occurrences of forest fires.

“Where are the healthiest forests?” asks Koehler. “The healthiest forests are in national parks, in wilderness areas and in roadless areas. In places with no roads, in places that have not been cut by the timber industry and still have public access.”

As for the claims of “no access” to millions of acres of public land, what the timber industry really means, counters Koehler, is no “motorized” access into the forests. Few people would argue, for example, that the Forest Service should be allowing ATVs or snowmobiles up Blodgett Canyon or Kootenai Creek in the Bitterroots.

Still, the prevailing sentiment among opponents to the Clinton plan is the claim that the process is happening far too quickly without substantive input and comment from the general public.

“If the shoe were on the other foot, our critics would be screaming like banshees,” says Cary Hegreberg, executive director of the Montana Wood Products Association. “Now suddenly when they’re getting their wish, they’re more than happy to abandon all those public participation processes that they’ve always guarded so closely.”

This despite an unprecedented comment period that included 190 regional and local public meetings that solicited more than 500,000 public comments, the most ever received for a Forest Service initiative.

“Don’t ever confuse the ceremony of democracy with the process of democracy,” says Greg Schildwachter of the Intermountain Forest Industry Association. “The way to really do this is get the people together who have worked hard on these issues for many years and care deeply about them on all sides and in good faith negotiate some kind of agreement.”

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