Roadless Rule could open 30,000 acres in Columbia Gorge

June 4, 2005

Days before former President Bill Clinton left the Oval Office in 2001, he signed a law, which, on a federal level, protected roadless areas in the National Forest from logging, mining and drilling. The enactment became known as "The Roadless Rule." It protected tracts of 5,000 acres or more with no roads through or around them until Congress could decide whether or not the land in question was pristine enough to earn the Mama Bear of federal protection: Wilderness.

Nearly 59 million acres throughout the nation qualified for the protection under the Roadless Rule, including 1.9 million of Oregon's 15.7 million acres of National Forest.

The Roadless Rule also protected roughly 30,000 acres of National Forest land in the Columbia River Gorge, including 17,000 acres in the Gorge Face Roadless Area, 13,000 acres in the Larch Mountain Roadless Area and 6,000 in the Twin Lakes near the Salmon River Meadows.

The Roadless Rule protected more than two million acres in Washington and more than nine million in Idaho.

The Bush Administration considered revising or repealing the rule and to figure out how, the National Forest Service in July 2004 solicited the sentiment of Americans.

Nearly two million people responded with written opposition to the new administration's intentions.

Two months later, Mark Rey, undersecretary for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the Bush Administration was extending the deadline for public comment through Nov. 15 instead of the middle of September - thus delaying an inevitably controversial decision until after the presidential election.

"It's unrelated to the elections," Rey had said in the Seattle Times.

On May 9, the Bush Administration reversed Clinton's "Roadless Rule" thus returning the fates of roadless areas to the discretion of forest managers.

Under Bush's decision, governors from each state have 18 months - near election day of 2006 - to petition the Forest Service for roadless area protections.

Under the new rule, however, the authority to determine the forests' fate resides with the Forest Service.

Conservatives applauded the decision, proclaiming it returned power from the federal government to the individual states. In a May 15 editorial to the Salt Lake Tribune, USDA Undersecretary Rey argued the continued construction of roads in the National Forests would provide better access to wildfire fighters.

And Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River commended the decision in a May 5 press release.

"I applaud President Bush for his efforts to foster a collaborative relationship when it comes to the management of roadless areas within our nation's forests by giving them Cooperating Agency Status," he said in the release. "While decision making authority will still rest with the Secretary of Agriculture, governors will now have the ability to provide local perspective and site specific recommendations for areas within their state."

But conservationists, including Anthony Villagomez, the "Lorax," point to the 34,336,000 acres of National Forest land that are already open to construction and the $10 billion road maintenance backlog for which the Forest Service is already trying to pay.

"They (special interests) have more influence at the state level than they do at the federal level," said Jay Ward, conservation director for the Oregon Natural Resources Council. "I think that is the hitch. What is Gov. (Ted) Kulongoski going to do to re-protect these lands?"

Kulongoski was openly critical of Bush's decision on the Roadless Rule. Now, says Mike Carrier, the governor's natural resources policy director, the governor is communicating with the Forest Service, various conservation groups to figure out whether or not to petition and how to do it.

"What we're doing now is evaluating what the rule provides and comparing that to the alternatives," Carrier said.

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