From the mystic wilds of the American Southwest and northern Rockies to the colorful deciduous woods of New England and the Appalachians, national forest roadless areas harbor some of America's last intact ecosystems. These pristine forests afford essential habitat for plants and animals, clean drinking water for millions of Americans, and outstanding opportunities for hiking, camping, and other quiet outdoor recreation.
Spanning more than 58 million acres in 38 states, roadless areas have escaped much of the development and ecological degradation that plagues our national forest system today. Breaking from a history of industrial forest management, the U.S. Forest Service in 2001 issued the landmark Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which generally protected roadless areas from logging, new mining and drilling, road construction, and other development. The rule resulted from 600 public hearings and more than a million public comments.
Unfortunately, soon after taking office the Bush administration began undoing roadless-area protections. Instead of defending the widely supported Roadless Rule, the Bush administration instituted a new rule that relinquished the responsibility for roadless-area protection to individual states. The Bush “state petitions” rule was challenged in court by the Center and our allies, and we prevailed in 2006, when a district court in California struck down the state petitions rule and reinstated the 2001 roadless rule. On August 5, 2009, this decision was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. However, a conflicting decision has been issued by a court in Wyoming, which is still under appeal, resulting in continued uncertainty over roadless area protection.
By the end of the Bush administration, the Roadless Rule was battered but still stood largely intact, thanks to the concerted efforts of conservationists. Since the Obama administration took office in early 2009, prospects for lasting roadless protection are looking brighter, but they're by no means guaranteed. In May 2009, the administration issued a directive that, for one year, grants sole authority to the secretary of agriculture to approve projects in roadless areas. This roadless-area “timeout” was meant to give the administration, the courts, and Congress time to sort out the roadless issue and allow for the development of a clear, consistent policy.
But roadless forests are still at risk. Less than two months after the Obama administration gave roadless areas a breather in May, it granted an exception to the timeout, allowing logging of old-growth forest in the Tongass National Forest of southeast Alaska. Further, the Forest Service has created an artificial distinction between the roadless areas that were identified at the time of the 2001 Roadless Rule and those more recently identified by the agency itself during forest plan revisions. For the more recently identified roadless areas, the Forest Service has refused to extend the protections of either the 2001 Roadless Rule or the May 2009 timeout for roadless areas.
Without protection in place, certain national forests have been allowed to plan and carry out major timber sales in the so-called “forest plan” roadless areas. Some areas have in fact already been clearcut. As more forests around the country are inventoried as part of the forest plan-revision process, many of those areas will become eligible for roading and logging by the Forest Service. Without a change in national policy, we could easily lose these precious forests — and the species that depend on them.
The Center is working to enact permanent, nationally consistent roadless area protection, including the protection of newly inventoried roadless areas. In May 2010, we sent a letter to the Obama administration to extend its “timeout” on roadless-area destruction — as well as to make sure that directive afforded true protection to all roadless areas. We're using a potent combination of litigation, policy advocacy, outreach, and collaboration to ensure that America's roadless lands remain protected forever.