A semi-retired judge tears apart the historic campaign to protect unroaded forests

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The campaigners provided detailed legal research to the Clintonites about how to make the rule tough and defensible. Two top lawyers weighed in: Niel Lawrence of the Natural Resources Defense Council and Charles Wilkinson, a University of Colorado law professor who was then on The Wilderness Society's board of directors.

The Clintonites sought input from dozens of other interest groups, ranging from off-road drivers to the Western States Sheriffs' Association. But judging by the final outcome, the enviros' goals outweighed all the other input; either that, or the enviros' goals coincided more exactly with the Clintonites' to begin with.

The Forest Service's Content Analysis Enterprise Team in Salt Lake City, which evaluated all the comments for the EIS process, found that many people complained that the process was rushed so it could be completed before the end of Clinton's term. Indeed, the Clintonites used the words "emergency" and "crisis team" in their internal communications. The first comment period lasted 60 days, and the other comment period—when people could read and react to the 796-page draft environmental impact statement—was 69 days. That's about average for a big EIS, but this one was unprecedented in scale, covering about one-third of the acres in all the national forests. Many people requested that the comment periods be extended; the Forest Service refused. The first round of hearings was especially chaotic—meetings were held without much advance notice, or in locations that were changed at the last second. Often there was a shortage of good maps or clear information about forest areas that might be affected.

Some of the most damning comments came from within the Forest Service. Five hundred staffers signed a letter praising the idea early on, but as the process unfolded, the Forest Service Council, a kind of union representing 14,000 staffers (half the agency's total), sent a formal letter in March 2000 trashing every aspect of it. Resistance from the ranks, faced with such a bold change, is not surprising. But the letter, written by Art Johnston, the group's legislative committee chair, goes beyond merely asking that the roadless rule be called off. Johnston said staffers opposed such "centralized planning...the Roadless Area Initiative is a 'one plan fits all' prescription and lumps 54 million acres together that are obviously quite different, both in physical aspects and in social/cultural dimensions...This initiative has totally bypassed scientific analysis..."

Wyoming federal judge Clarence Brimmer Jr. believes that President Clinton’s roadless rule was illegally rigged, and has set out to overturn it. “I feel we have to play the cards face up,” he says. - PHOTO COURTESY OF TODD NEWCOMER
  • Photo courtesy of Todd Newcomer
  • Wyoming federal judge Clarence Brimmer Jr. believes that President Clinton’s roadless rule was illegally rigged, and has set out to overturn it. “I feel we have to play the cards face up,” he says.

Moreover, "the Roadless Area Initiative...has greatly magnified the conflict between the urban environmental community and other National Forest users," the Forest Service Council went on. "On one side is the administration and every environmental organization; on the other, every rural state and its governor, every county board, hunters, ORVers, libertarians, and logging and mining associations...The decisions that led to this initiative were not open and transparent. Only one group of forest users was consulted, and the other side was clearly and intentionally locked out of the process. There was no effort by the administration to gather consensus or agreement...This is an example of politics at its worst...We also live in rural communities [and] the level of distrust toward the Forest Service and its employees has reached an unprecedented level."

With the pressure from the top, many Forest Service staffers couldn't openly express their opposition. "The Union is very concerned about recent threats of reprisal from the administration toward Forest Service employees who have voiced their concerns about the Roadless Area initiative," the letter said. "It is totally unacceptable for any employee to be threatened by the administration with retirement if they voice questions about [it]. Nor should they be told that they cannot be talking to certain people. Forest Service employees take pride in their public service and professionalism. Forest Service employees should be treated respectfully—most certainly by Forest Service leadership. All employees should be encouraged to have diverse opinions and to use all their skills to solve problems and facilitate public relationships and debates."

The Forest Service Council charged that the roadless rule violated both the National Forest Management Act (which calls for individual forest plans to decide such issues) and the Wilderness Act. Another Forest Service group—more than 160 retired high-level staffers, organized as the FSX Club of Washington, D.C., "having vast experience in wild land planning and prescriptions"—also said the EIS process was a sham. The chapter head, Robert C. Van Aken, wrote in July 2000 that the whole process "makes a mockery" of decades of forest planning and NEPA analyses. The EIS analyses didn't have "a full display of the economic and social impacts of a massive roadless designation," he wrote, because of "the agency's totally inappropriate reliance on a narrow spectrum of special interest groups in proposing and formulating the rule. The result is an unbalanced proposal with misleading and inadequate analysis that...violate(s) existing statutes and regulations."

As the environmentalists' mass-mailed comments piled up, Nancy Thornburg, a retired museum archivist and journalist in Markleesville, Calif., a small town surrounded by the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, wrote a personal comment letter opposing the rule. She also wrote to California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, saying that "stacks of postcards and gang, boilerplate e-mails should not carry the same weight as carefully thought out letters with specific comments and suggestions." Thornburg included a copy of an alert on the Sierra Club website that urged people to get their "stack of cards" to help generate 250,000 postcard comments before the impending deadline. The Sierra Club also sent its chapters a video explaining the issue and asked the chapter leaders to show the tape to its half-million members to generate postcards.

"The Forest Service owns 96 percent of my county, which leaves only 4 percent for any kind of economic base," Thornburg says in a phone interview, "and when I take the time to compose an e-mail or a letter [to the agency] I know the subject. I'm telling [the agency how a proposed action] is going to impact my family and my community. It's fine for the Sierra Club to send postcards to its members and say, 'Just put a stamp on this and mail it in'—but don't view those evenly with my comment."

Thornburg used to belong to the Sierra Club, but now she belongs to conservative groups—although she sees those groups using the same tactics.

Sen. Boxer forwarded Thornburg's 1999 letter about the mass postcards to the Forest Service, and the head of the Roadless Project, Scott Conroy, responded to Thornburg with a letter assuring her that, according to standard EIS procedure, "If the postcards all have the same message, they are treated as a single comment...Their content is given equal weight with that of individually composed comments."

Using that method of counting, the Forest Service's analysis team found that in the biggest round of comments, reacting to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), "by far...most comments...are negative...Both those favoring and those opposed to the rule express concern over statements they consider to be vague, subjective, and open to interpretation." Most comments said the hearings for the DEIS were poorly planned and carried out, "held at extremely inconvenient times and locations and that presentations were not sufficiently clear and accurate...respondents, on both sides of the issue, said the meetings they attended were dominated by persons and groups representing the other side, and they felt too intimidated to stand up in the face of so much opposition and express their own views...The overwhelming sentiment expressed is that [the 69-day DEIS comment period] was woefully inadequate and should be extended."

The analysis team dutifully listed all the positive and negative comments, but reported that one section of the DEIS drew almost universal disdain. "A great many respondents write that the proposed rule will devastate [timber] communities," the team's report, published in October 2000, goes on. "The social analysis of timber workers...has stimulated an extraordinary amount of comment—entirely and categorically negative. Respondents see it as biased, condescending, and indicative of a total lack of respect for workers in the timber industry. They see it as one more piece of evidence that the national leadership of the Forest Service has been infiltrated by 'radical environmentalists' who have no regard whatever for the work and value they represent...They claim that the conclusion drawn from the analysis—that individuals and communities can adjust to any circumstances...shows how little the Forest Service understands their true circumstances...The intense level of emotional reaction to this analysis cannot be overemphasized."

Despite the criticism, in every step—from the initial "scoping" to the DEIS, then to the final impact statement, then to the Federal Register—the roadless rule got tougher, either by covering more and more acres or in its prescriptions. The range of alternatives in both the draft and the final EIS was narrow; other than the "No Action" alternative—which has probably never been selected in the entire 40-year history of EISes—the other alternatives all called for banning road construction in roadless areas. The differences lay in the details. None of the "Action" alternatives considered banning roads only in the most sensitive areas, or setting limits on road densities, strict standards on road construction or other regulations on exactly where roads could be built.

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