Too Close To Call 

Will the feds’ new roadless plan make it past January?

The Forest Service earlier this week released its preferred alternative in the final environmental impact statement (EIS) to protect 58.5 million acres of roadless lands in United States national forests. Included in the plan are 6.4 million of the 16.9 million acres in Montana’s national forests, and nearly 9 million acres in the Forest Service’s Northern Region, which includes the Idaho panhandle. The plan would designate 406,000 acres in the Bitterroot National Forest, 758,000 acres in the Lolo forest, 479,000 acres in the Flathead forest, and 638,000 acres in the Kootenai as protected from further road-building.

The reaction from both industry groups and national environmental organizations was predictable, with the former holding out for a possible Bush presidency and the latter responding with cautious pessimism.

If Bush is elected, he has promised to rescind the roadless plan, a move that would render meaningless the 1.6 million comments from citizens taken by the Forest Service over a two-year period, 95 percent of which urged the Clinton Administration and the Forest Service to protect remaining roadless lands.

Perhaps lost to the embittered rhetoric of the presidential race is exactly how the Forest Service plans to protect remaining roadless areas. The agency’s preferred alternative would immediately protect 49.2 million acres in the lower 48 from further road-building, adding an additional 9.3 million acres from the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, but not until 2004. The total acreage in the lower 48 increased from 42.2 million acres due to the inclusion of “specially designated areas,” (such as the National Recreation Areas like Rattlesnake north of Missoula) and “roaded portions of inventoried roadless areas,” a seemingly contradictory designation.

Yet that jump in total acres is not necessarily an indication of the Forest Service’s willingness to protect inventoried roadless lands. The preferred alternative prohibits logging except for “stewardship” purposes, and would allow some road-building in specifically designated areas to continue.

According to Jeff Juel of The Ecology Center, the vague definition of stewardship represents what could be a significant loophole for environmentally destructive logging. “We’ve seen this type of logging before; call it fire salvage, call it fire management, or stewardship,” says Juel. “Basically it comes down to the Forest Service still getting the cut out for industry.” According to Juel, the Forest Service already considers two-thirds of their timber sales to be for stewardship purposes.

Juel notes that of the 1.6 million public comments the Forest Service received, 90 percent of them asked that remaining roadless lands be off limits to all extractive industry in addition to road-building, whether it be timber, mining, oil and gas exploration, or ATV use. “The Forest Service has acknowledged the will of the people and has begrudgingly given in on some issues,” Juel says. “But the reality here is that their budget is still tied to what timber and mining interests want, and though the terminology changes, they’re still up to the same old tricks.”

Matthew Koehler of the Native Forest Network echoed Juel’s sentiment that the plan doesn’t reflect the overwhelming majority of public comments the Forest Service received. “Ninety-five percent, now that’s the definition of a mandate,” says Koehler. “You can’t get 95 percent of a given group of people to agree on where to go to dinner, much less on most political issues. But here it is. Clearly this is an issue that crosses party lines, and unites the vast majority of citizens who are saying we want the last of our wild places protected with no compromises. But then there’s the Forest Service, still making compromises to industry.”

The Forest Service, of course, has a different view on the definition of “stewardship,” a term that many Montanans may remember Gov. Marc Racicot slinging around on national talk shows this summer amidst the fire crisis. Bitterroot National Forest spokesperson Dixie Dee explained it this way: “By definition, a stewardship sale is one where we focus on what we want to have left on the land. So if we want wildlife cover, we emphasize those values. It could be dense undergrowth, or streambed restoration, or what ever is called for in a certain area.” And could there be logging within a stewardship sale? “There could be,” says Dee. “It would depend on what the emphasis is on a section of land.”

While a clear definition of stewardship remains in doubt, there does not seem to be particular concern about the effect the next president will have on the roadless initiative. “If Bush is elected and Racicot is his Secretary of the Interior, they’ll alienate every last person who commented on this initiative,” predicts Juel. “I don’t think they have the mandate to conduct the kind give-aways to their friends in industry they’re hoping for. The people of Montana won’t stand for it.”

As for the Bitterroot National Forest, according to Dee, no one is slowing down to wait to see who is elected. “There’s no time to wait,” says Dee. “There’s always too much work to do.”
The numbers describing the acreages protected under the roadless initiative are difficult to visualize on a map, let alone in the real world. To help put the numbers in context, here’s a break-down of roadless acreages and their locations in the Bitterroot National Forest. If George Bush is installed as president, however, all figures may revert to 0, as Bush has promised to rescind the measure.

Allan Mountain 102,300

Blue Joint65,400

Lolo Creek 587

Needle Creek1100

North Big Hole3700

Sapphire44,100

Selway-Bitterroot 115,100

Sleeping Child21,408

Stony Mountain43,700

Swift Creek 700

Tolan Creek 7,100

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