TOPICS > Science

Forest Protections

May 7, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPENCER MICHELS: Last Friday, the Bush administration announced it would go ahead with a Clinton administration ban on building new roads in national forests, but with some exceptions. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman:

ANN VENEMAN: Providing roadless protection for our national forests is the right thing to do, and because it’s the right thing to do, it’s important to do it right, for the land, for people, for communities, for states, and for the country as a whole.

SPENCER MICHELS: The roadless plan was issued by the Clinton administration in its final weeks, but never actually went into effect. It bars new roads and most logging on 58.5 million acres, about one-third of all national forest lands. Most of the land is located in western states like Idaho, Montana, and Alaska.

Environmentalists had lobbied for the policy, saying it was the only way to protect pristine forest land and preserve critical wildlife habitats. But logging and mining industries said the rule effectively locks up valuable resources. The state of Idaho and a timber company sued in federal court to block the rule from taking effect. Veneman said the decision to implement most of the Clinton policy was made after a two- month review process, a process that she said revealed the need to allow local authorities to make changes to the plan.

ANN VENEMAN: We will work with states, tribes, local communities, and the public through a process that is fair, open, and responsive to local input to ensure the rule is implemented with more reliable information and accurate mapping. This includes drawing on local expertise and experience through the local forest planning process.

SPOKESMAN: We cannot let the extremists dictate what we’re going to do in our communities.

SPENCER MICHELS: It was local communities and politicians that voiced the loudest objections to the roadless plan when it was proposed three years ago. Communities like Cascade, Idaho, depend on logging for jobs and tax revenue, and loggers depend on building new roads to access the trees for harvesting. Residents in towns like Cascade said that if logging is stopped, the towns would whither away. The plan is slated to go into effect May 12. Amendments to the plan will be announced in June.

MARGARET WARNER: The day the administration announced its new national forest policy, interpretations of what it meant varied sharply. “Clinton Forest Rules to Stand,” said the Washington Post’s front-page headline. “Bush will modify ban on new roads for U.S. forests,” said the New York Times.

To further interpret and debate the new policy, we’re joined by Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, the Republican Governor of Idaho; and Jim Lyons, who was Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment at the Agriculture Department when the Clinton administration policy was developed. He’s now a professor at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Welcome to you both.

Jim Lyons, Secretary Veneman said she is not going to abolish the policy you all developed. But it is going to be amended so that local folks will have more of a say in decisions on whether to build a road in a particular forest. What’s wrong with that?

JIM LYONS: Well, there’s really nothing wrong with that, Margaret. In fact, that’s what we tried to encourage when we initiated a process to finally bring this issue to closure. I think the problem is that the Bush administration is substituting more process for certainty and resolution of an issue that has thwarted the Forest Service and has caused controversy in national forest management for decades. We simply sought to bring that to closure because the issues were never resolved at the local level, they were never resolved through the earlier planning process. And, frankly, to go back to the process is going to lead to more controversy, more consternation, and I doubt any real solution.

MARGARET WARNER: Most environmental groups who have been asked to comment on this said they see this as a way of sugar coating what is really a reversal of the policy. Do you see it as going that far?

JIM LYONS: Well, let me say first of all I’m cautiously optimistic at the comments of Secretary Veneman who indicated only minimal changes will be likely. The real question is what comes out on June 4 when the Department is supposed to announce the proposed changes they would like to see in the process. But the Bush administration has, I think, been very careful and to some degree very clever in how they’ve dealt with these issues. For example, on national monuments they announced earlier this year that they supported retention of the existing national monuments set up by the Clinton administration but then also were clear to say they would dictate through management plans how the monuments are to be used in the future. The devil is in the details with regard to this process. And really what unfolds in June and how the subsequent changes are to come about.

MARGARET WARNER: Governor, you don’t think the Bush changes go far enough.

GOV. DIRK KEMPTHORNE: Margaret, if I may put it in perspective. In Idaho, the amount of federal land that we have, you can put eight states from the eastern part of the United States within that total landmass that’s federally owned in Idaho. Amongst all of that forested land, we have a variety of state land holdings. This would deny us access to that. Now the revenue that we would derive from the state land goes into the state endowment fund, the recipient of that are the schoolchildren. So by not having access, this has a very detrimental impact upon the children – upon the education of them in Idaho.

It has been estimated that over 30 years this could cost the state of Idaho nearly $300 million. Also we have just come off the worst fire season in recorded history in Idaho and in the West. The problem is that we have forests that are so filled, the fuel load is so sufficient, we need to have the opportunity to get back to healthy forests. This proposal by the Clinton Administration does not do that. The process which they use

MARGARET WARNER: You’re talking about this, to be clear here, you’re talking about the existing rule or the proposal by the Clinton administration, not the new Bush Administration policy.

GOV. DIRK KEMPTHORNE: No, the process by which the Clinton Administration conducted the National Environmental Policy Act was flawed. I’ll give you a simple example. During the first scoping process which was 60 days, we asked for an extension of time. That was denied. We asked for maps to show us here in Idaho what would be impacted. We never received the maps. The attorney general, Al Lance, and I sent a letter, Freedom of Information Act, we had to resort to that to get good information. The federal judge that is hearing this, I think, has made it very clear that he believes that this was a flawed process, and so that’s why at this point we are going to have to remain in court.

I would add I have great confidence in President Bush and I appreciate the dialogue that we’ve had with the White House, but at this point, Idaho will continue its court case. Last week we were joined by the state of Wyoming and Montana. The Bush Administration, they cannot, by a stroke of a pen, rescind this rule that was put in place. What we would have to do is go back through the NEPA process. Therefore we’re going to stay with our court challenge.

MARGARET WARNER: You’re saying one you think it needs to be outright rescinded and, two, you think a federal judge actually has more power to do that in one fell swoop than the Bush Administration.

GOV. DIRK KEMPTHORNE: That’s true. That’s a tool that the President does not have. I don’t like us to be in court doing this. I think too often we are going into litigation rather than having results. At the top of your show, you showed, I think, Cascade, Idaho and the mill that’s operating there; it no longer operates because it has been shut down. A number of mills have been closed. Part of that is we don’t have a sufficient supply of timber. But we’re not talking about quotas to be established. We’re talking about forest health. There has to be a thinning. If we don’t, the pristine forests that my friend Jim Lyons is talking about, I’m afraid will continue to go up in flames.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me let Jim Lyons now respond. Okay, respond to that bill of particulars against the rule that you folks put in there that is at issue here.

JIM LYONS: I appreciate the opportunity, Margaret. It is good to hear from Governor Kempthorne again. Let me deal with the substantive issues first and then on the process issues. First on the issue of substance, the policy that we put in place would not restrict access to state lands, to tribal lands or to private land holdings. An exemption for road building for those purposes is clearly provided in the rule. With regard to concern about wildfire risk, I would also point out that the rule provided in exemption that allows for road building where there’s an imminent threat of fire and also provides for logging of small diameter trees, the kind of trees that create the kind of fuel the governor is referring to as a normal course of business; that would not be prohibited. It is interesting that the Forest Service recently did an assessment of wildfire risk across the country and they determined on the national forests about 60 million acres was at moderate to severe risk of wildfire. Of that, only 23 percent of those lands were in roadless areas. At the current rate in which the Forest Services funded to do the kind of fuel treatment that the government calls for would take an excess of 30 years to get the work done. So why enter the roadless areas when the highest risk, the greatest threats to communities and the most accessible lands are already roaded?

MARGARET WARNER: Governor, if these are roadless areas that haven’t been developed before, for the most part, why do they need to be developed now?

GOV. DIRK KEMPTHORNE: Margaret, when Jim Lyons mentioned the imminent threat, it’s because massive tracks of these forests have such fuel load. We’re losing our Ponderosa Pines because the other trees that are coming in are just taking over that. We will continue to have as we did last year in Idaho, one billion board feet went up in flames. That’s the equivalent of building 100,000 single family dwellings. We need to have the opportunity to get in there and reduce the fuel load.

MARGARET WARNER: Excuse me for interrupting you – though — I thought he just said that the old rule did allow road building for that.

GOV. DIRK KEMPTHORNE: Well, I think it’s then the definition because I’m sure we disagree as to where those roads could be put. Margaret that’s part of the point; when we asked for the maps, we did not receive the maps. This is very important to the State of Idaho. Again, we have probably the driest year that we’ve had in the last 100 years – so no moisture, forest that is filled with fuel and we don’t have the opportunity or access to get in there and remove the fuel, and also to develop resources that can help the children of Idaho as well as the jobs. What do you say to these folks that have lost their jobs now in communities that are probably just have one industry that was in that town?

MARGARET WARNER: Would you answer the last question the governor just asked?

JIM LYONS: I’d be glad to. Terms of timber supply, Margaret, this really has only a minimal impact. While there may be localized impacts, and we did estimate that between 500 and 600 jobs might be impacted over a five period, the truth of the matter is that roadless areas would only provide one-half of 1 percent of the national timber supply. This is not a substantive issue from a timber impact standpoint. The other point I want to make is that the information the governor sought in terms of maps is readily available and has been for some time. It was part of the extensive and frankly historic public participation process we promoted, on a Web site that was made available by the Forest Service. You could go to any state. This is an example, this — the Idaho map that could you pick up with the Web site and identify those specific areas that were impacted by the roadless proposal. So that information is available. We made every effort to make sure it was.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me just ask you one final question. Is really the issue here a basic difference about what the national forests are for, to whom they belong, and what they should be used for?

JIM LYONS: I think that’s really what we’re debating here. Frankly it has been a part of the debate over the national forests that has extended for a century. When Teddy Roosevelt first took the initiative to establish millions of acres of national forests there, was strong resentment and opposition from many western members of Congress. In fact, efforts were made to limit President Roosevelt’s authority to establish new national forests. We look at Teddy Roosevelt today as a significant figure in conservation history, the father of American conservation.

MARGARET WARNER: You see that it was a conservation effort by him, by President Roosevelt.

JIM LYONS: I believe it was, and I would characterize the efforts of the Clinton Administration in the same vain. I would emphasize these are not partisan positions. There is strong support among Republican members of Congress and others for the same kind of protections for roadless areas.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. And, Governor, how do you see the basic philosophical difference about what the national forests are for, whom they long and how they should be used?

GOV. DIRK KEMPTHORNE: Margaret, it is very important to draw the distinction between a roadless area and wilderness. Idaho has the largest wilderness area in the lower 48 states. What we are contending and I believe we’ll prove in court with the Attorney General Al Lance leading this is the fact the NEPA process was flawed. They didn’t follow it properly. And if I can, Margaret, just quote briefly from the judge’s ruling April of this year. “Because of the hurried nature of this process, the forest service was not well informed enough to present a coherent proposal or meaningful dialogue and that the end result was pre-determined. Justice hurried on a proposal of this magnitude is justice denied; it points out this was a flawed procedure.

MARGARET WARNER: Back to the philosophical procedure question for just a minute, though. Are you saying that you think the wilderness areas should be left pristine and are really for conservation and recreation but the national forests you think really should be available to be exploited or used by industry and local industry?

GOV. DIRK KEMPTHORNE: I wouldn’t use the term exploited. The wilderness is the pristine area. We are proud of that. The roaded area, it, too, can remain pristine. When we are talking about roads this is not putting in a four-lane highway. This is just allowing us access. And also interestingly enough, all summer as I flew over this state watching it burn, I would stop and at times foresters would spread the map over the hood of the pickup and say we have been able to stop the fire here. And I would say, why was it stopped there, and they said well, there happened to be a road that helped as a firebreak. So we need to get pragmatic about this. We are willing to go through the dialogue and determine what ought to remain roadless and what should be roaded and we can get in there. But what is significant, if we don’t have access, we lose revenue to the schools of Idaho, we also I think, run the very high risk that these pristine forests that we believe in will go up in flames.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, gentlemen. Thank you both very much.