Roadless Traveled 

Montanans track the future of Clinton’s roadless initiative

While Bill Clinton scurried out of the White House last week amid sordid tales of political payoffs, some of his erstwhile loyal staffers pulled a fast one. They stole all the W’s from all the computer keyboards in the executive offices, leaving the new administration without a way to distinguish their new boss from his father. While some Republicans didn’t grasp the humor in the prank, ordinary citizens from Pennsylvania Avenue to the Forest Service’s Region I office in Missoula were wondering if President Bush might engage in some political oneupmanship by stealing the roadless initiative signed by Clinton.

The roadless plan, which provides a reprieve for some 58 million acres of national forest lands from logging, road building and other industrial uses, underwent intensive scrutiny, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). This law mandates due process, which in this instance meant an exhaustive inventory of roadless areas, over 600 public hearings at which over 23,000 people testified, and a public commentary period in which 1.6 million concerned citizens voiced their opinions, a record response for a public commentary period.

Unlike Clinton’s monuments, which came into existence with the stroke of a pen, the roadless initiative was a multi-year, multi-agency undertaking. The plan closes no roads that are currently open; it only provides protection for higher-elevation, historically less-impacted lands where no roads currently exist. While critics of the plan are correct in asserting that the roadless concept was hatched in the Clinton years, the real problems for Bush are that the plan follows all applicable environmental laws, and what’s worse, it won support from the overwhelming majority of the 1.6 million citizens who weighed in on the issue.

But that doesn’t mean Bush won’t try. According to Jen Ferenstein of the Missoula chapter of the Sierra Club, there are at least three ways the new president could rescind the roadless plan. The first is would be through Congress, under an obscure law passed during the mid-’90s when Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America was all the rage. The law mandates that before any new environmental laws or policies go into effect, the cost to small businesses must be calculated as part of the process of creating the policy or law. If, for instance, some Western senator were to call for a review of the roadless plan, and if the plan could be construed to be too costly to small business, the policy could come to Congress for final approval, where it could be thrown out by a simple majority vote.

The second method would be to sue the roadless policy to death. With this in mind, the Idaho State Land Board recently filed suit against the federal government, with the notion that overreaching federal policy will cost the state money and violate state’s rights. This will be a tough one to win in court, since environmental law was followed in establishing the roadless policy and the land in question is owned by the federal government.

Option three would dictate that Bush start the entire five-year process over again, following the process laid out by NEPA, inventorying public lands, holding public meetings, and holding out for more detractors of the roadless policy to make their voices heard in public commentary periods. This would be the most democratic approach. According to Ferenstein, this is also the least likely scenario.

“It seems the way Bush likes to do these things is to have someone do the dirty work for him,” Ferenstein says. “It’s very possible that this will come to a Congressional vote, and it will depend on a variety of circumstances whether or not [Bush] gets the votes he needs.”

Ferenstein adds that she was reassured by meetings last week with U.S. Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) in which the senator indicated he wouldn’t vote for rescinding the roadless initiative, nor would he introduce any legislation to that end.

Yet other Montana Democrats were not so supportive. Two weeks ago, state Rep. Vicki Cochiarella, who represents the South Hills district in the Montana Legislature, held a press conference in which she unabashedly denounced the roadless plan, calling for a better balance between jobs and the environment. Constituents and colleagues (not to mention journalists) have bombarded her phone line in Helena with emails and phone calls, but to date, she has not responded to repeated inquiries. Tom Facey, a fellow Democrat from the Rattlesnake district, feels Cochiarella’s statements were an indicator of the divisiveness in the current debate over environmental issues.

“It’s such a polarizing atmosphere,” Facey says. “If you could corner a timber contractor, outside a political arena, he might admit, ‘yeah you’re right, there’s not a whole lot of merchantable timber in the areas and at the elevations you’re talking about,’ and if you could do the same with an enviro, they might be able to see that the depressed timber market right now is mostly due to a flood of cheap timber from Canada cut with no regard for environmental laws under NAFTA provisions. My own response is, isn’t there some common ground here? Aren’t these some of the same issues that were being protested at the WTO convention? Under the spotlight, though, these guys are going to take every fight they can just on principle.”

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