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A Report on the Roadless Policy

Jonas N. Parker


Introduction

In the midst of a virgin forest, one feels a true sense of wonder. The forest took hundreds of years to mature, and being one of the few humans to set foot in it, one cannot help but feel impressed by this nature, and concerned about its future. Several years ago, Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck, serving under President Clinton, came up with a policy for the entire National Forest System. The policy is likely to prohibit any new road building within areas of the national forest that are currently roadless.

On October 16, 1999, the Forest Service initiated an historic effort to permanently protect the remaining wild areas in the National Forest System. The roadless policy offered protection across the nation to threatened forests. The Tongass National Forest however, was excluded. Consequently, the Forest Service issued a series of potential alternatives, and the controversy continues today.

Goals of the Roadless Policy

The Roadless Policy sought to balance local needs while maintaining the value of roadless areas. At the same time, roadless areas would remain open for public use, access and recreation.

The Proposal:

  • Prohibits new roads in 43 million acres of inventoried roadless areas within the National Forest System.

  • Provides opportunities for additional protection for the inventoried areas and other smaller unroaded areas through local forest planning.

  • Defers until 2004 the decision on providing additional protection for an additional 8.5 million acres on the Tongass National Forest.

Roadless Policy in the Tongass

The exclusion of the Tongass National Forest brought an outcry from conservation groups across the country and particularly in Alaska. The Tongass National Forest is, after all, the country's largest national forest. At 17 million acres it is the size of West Virginia. Approximately one third of the country's roadless areas are in the Tongass National Forest.

President George W. Bush, challenging the integrity of the Roadless Policy, claims that this is an issue to be dealt with locally. Many conservationists from Sitka, Alaska, located in the heart of the Tongass National Forest, voiced their opinions and shared concerns on the matter -- since the Policy affects them directly. Robert Ellis says that, "Our existing wilderness is being used nearly to its capacity. "I'm an eco- bigot," says Meg Cartwright in response to State Senator Robin Taylor's remark about "Roadless proponents being 'eco- bigots' from down south who just fell off the turnip truck.

Meg Cartwright goes on to say that the Tongass should have been given the highest priority. We have an opportunity now to act on protecting what has not already been clearcut. Lee Schmidt says we who are locals have a stewardship obligation. The Tongass is everybody's forest. Annie Volmer says that the Tongass will soon be just another cut- over forest if we do not take steps to preserve. Think of the future. Cooley simply says that the question is to build more logging roads in our National Forests or budget limited funds for maintenance of existing roads.

An important victory for conservationists across the country came on December 14, 1999, when over 300 scientists, researchers and university professors jointly wrote and signed a letter to President Clinton in support of including the Tongass National Forest in the Roadless Policy. "Unlike most national forests, the Tongass still encompasses many undisturbed watersheds with a full complement of all native species. The letter went on to encompass points that discussed the downfall of clearcutting old growth forests, the destruction of animal habitat, and the ruin of valuable ecosystems. "In the Tongass, there are two million acres left open to development, including 450,000 acres of roadless old growth.

By exempting the Tongass from other national forests an otherwise laudable policy has been weakened. Regardless of the support from the multitude of scientists and researchers, the battle of the conservationists continued.

Voices of the conservationists were not the only voices heard. Like so many things, there was (and is) a second side to the story. According to Williams Jr., a writer for the Ketchikan Daily News, we should, "Pity the poor Forest Service. The Clinton-Gore Administration has pretty well destroyed it and its original goal, sustainable multiple use. Al Gore promised to include the Tongass in a roadless ban, if elected president, adversely affecting the Southeast entirely. This is ironic considering it was the Forest Service who came up with the policy in the first place! However, campaigns to include the Tongass National Forest were initiated throughout the country. Mr. Coose of the Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce says that campaign comments from Ketchikan will have to come from its visitors. We will be working with local citizens, businesses governments and the Alaska Congressional Delegation to ensure visitors are permitted to enjoy their time in Ketchikan without being accosted by carpetbaggers selling postcard biology.

The Benefits of Including the Tongass in the Roadless Policy

Having participated in the Sitka Conservation Society's campaign for inclusion of the Tongass National Forest, I can say that opposition was rarely encountered while trying to sell my "postcard biology." Several issues and concerns that were repeatedly brought up however, were, first, how much will it cost? Secondly, will it lock up the Tongass? and lastly, why hasn't the Policy already taken affect? In regards to the first question, it shouldn't cost a cent. As a matter of fact, it will end up saving the federal government money. According to the final environmental impact statement, "The [Forest Service] has an $8.4 billion backlog in deferred maintenance, road construction, and bridge and culvert maintenance and replacement on the more than 386,000 miles [of road] in the existing Forest Transportation System." Currently the Forest Service is unable to maintain its existing roads. By including the Tongass in the Roadless Policy, the Forest Service could direct more time and money to the current road system.

In addition to saving the federal government money, including the Tongass in the Roadless Policy would not lock it up either. Areas that have logging roads and infrastructure still hold more than 10 billion board feet of timber. These areas would still allow timber harvest and roads. Obviously, protecting roadless areas still leaves plenty of room for a sustainable, environmentally responsible timber industry in Southeast Alaska. The third question was: Is there a scientific reason for exempting the Tongass from the Roadless Policy? Absolutely not. In fact more than 300 scientists from around the country have signed a letter to the President saying, "there is no scientific basis to exclude the Tongass." The only argument for not including the Tongass would comprise the issues of money, jobs and industrial progress. Still, with enough timber to operate at a sustainable level, there is no reason to exclude the Tongass, whatsoever.

Conclusion

After a summer of collecting comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, the Forest Service released the Final Environmental Impact Statement in November 2000. The result was and is the inclusion of the Tongass National Forest. "Implementation of the preferred alternative on the Tongass National Forest will begin in April 2004 to provide those communities in Southeast Alaska most impacted by the decision a transition period in which to adjust to possible economic changes that may result" (Abstract). Many argued that the conservationists had gotten their way, but this was not the case. The Tongass will be included in the Roadless Policy, but not for four years. Timber sales that the Forest Service puts up for bid can continue to be fulfilled until completed -- even if it is long after April 2004. In the end, the remaining portion of the nation's largest national forest will be protected. Economic consequences will result, but in the long run I firmly believe that Southeast Alaska, most of which is the Tongass National Forest, will benefit.

Author note: This information is current as of April, 2001. Currently the Bush Administration is asking for another round of public comments. The comment period ends in September 2001. President Bush and many western lawmakers and politicians oppose the Roadless Policy in its entirety.

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For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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