This Guest Opinion originally appeared in The Missoulian on May 14, 2019.
Four percent of the nation’s forested public wildlands remain undeveloped today. These landscapes are either designated wilderness or lands that qualify for designation. Many lands not protected as wilderness are called roadless areas. There are approximately 60 million acres of unprotected roadless lands on our national forests. They provide crucial fish and wildlife habitat and support some of the richest biodiversity in our country. Roadless areas also offer a spectrum of recreation opportunities and drinking water for millions of Americans.
The federal government established the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule in response to the potential development of these roadless landscapes and vast public sentiment calling for their protection. Public outcry resulted in over 600 meetings throughout the country and over 1.5 million comments — the vast majority of which supported permanent protection.
Idaho then petitioned the Bush Administration for a separate rule, and the federal government obliged by developing one. This resulted in the 2008 Idaho Roadless Rule, which established a controversial five-theme approach to how America’s wildlands could be managed in Idaho. Four of five themes imposed fewer road building and logging restrictions than the national rule, resulting in 84% of the state’s roadless base (9 million acres) vulnerable to development. The Idaho Roadless Rule is a gift to the timber industry.
Friends of the Clearwater, a forest watch group in Moscow, Idaho, just published a well-researched report titled “The Roadless Report: Analyzing the Impacts of Two Roadless Rules on Forested Wildlands.” According to the agency’s own preliminary data, the U.s. Forest Service has authorized the development of 40,000-50,000 acres of roadless wildlands in Idaho and Montana combined. Surprisingly, more logging has occurred in Montana than Idaho, despite the narrow exceptions in the national rule that permits such development. The broad permissions in the Idaho rule could change that in the near future.
The report also details the Forest Service’s shift in its project-specific road building and logging analysis and the impacts to roadless area characteristics. In the 1990s, it frequently concluded that development degrades and eliminates roadless area characteristics. This mostly held true between 2001-2008 as well. Shortly thereafter, however, the agency began concluding that development improves roadless characteristics for site-specific projects.
Today, many national forests across the West are revising their forest plans. The agency is mandated to assess undeveloped wildlands and potentially recommend areas for wilderness during this process. During this process, however, some forests also dropped previously logged areas from their roadless inventory. This is a classic catch-22.
The late Mollie Beattie of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service once said, “What a country chooses to save is what a country chooses to say about itself.” Please tell your members of Congress that the Forest Service is being completely disingenuous and attempting to bulldoze and log America’s last wild places. We need congressional oversight of the agency. The Forest Service has either forgotten the public’s sentiment, or perhaps worse, doesn’t care. The public should be outraged.
Brett Haverstick is the director of education and outreach for Friends of the Clearwater.