February 23, 1999
by Woody Justice
"There are few more irreparable marks we can leave on the land than to build a road." -- Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck
The Greens have a saying: If you don't like environmentalists, then put them out of work. To the casual observer at least, the forest activists are now free to disband -- to climb down from their exposed perches in giant Redwoods, unchain from logging-road gates, put away their spikes and monkey-wrenches and return to their simple communes where they will dance to the recovery of Spotted Owls and Salamanders.
It would seem that a steady stream of arguments favoring the end of the subsidized destruction of public lands has finally turned the tide. The sign that the long battle has been won is the Clinton Administration's announcement of a formal interim moratorium on construction of new roads in National Forests. (Couple that with Bill's feel-good budgetary proposal of $1 million for protecting environmentally sensitive areas from development and one might think that Al has successfully converted him into a radical Nature-boy. As far as that idea goes, how likely is it that Congress will approve anything that makes this president look good?)
When Clinton signed the U.S. Forest Service appropriations in November 1997, he plugged a new roadless-area management policy and acknowledged that "These last remaining wild areas are precious to millions of Americans and key to protecting clean water and abundant wildlife habitat, and providing recreation opportunities. These unspoiled places must be managed through science, not politics." Announcement of a limited, temporary road-building moratorium followed shortly thereafter and prompted 70,000 comments from the public over the past year. Of those responses, 95 percent called for a permanent policy to protect all remaining roadless areas in the national forest system.
It would seem that conservationists should welcome the new plan -- at least as a first step toward an end to commercial logging on public land -- but roadless areas are a special case. Perhaps if it were a meaningful policy, and not simply a diversion while logging continues and new ways of managing the timber harvest are concocted. Perhaps if "no roads" truly meant no roads... Unfortunately the scheme is riddled with loopholes, and with so little real wilderness left there is no room for compromise. What we manage to preserve today can always be plundered tomorrow, but land that is violently (and needlessly) lost remains unredeemed for multiple generations.
Of the 191 million acres of federally owned forests, more than half suffers the effects of extractive uses: timber cutting, oil and gas development, and mining. An estimated 440,000 miles of access roads scar this expanse. (If the roads are all only ten feet wide -- which they aren't -- and one excuses the ruined lands that the roads facilitate as "forest" -- which they aren't -- there are over 50,000 acres lost to the roads themselves.) Less than eighteen percent of the total is officially designated roadless wilderness, and legislation keeps it "untrammeled by man." The remainder, about 60 million acres, comprises roadless forest parcels of at least 1,000 acres.
This vulnerable thirty percent -- America's Heritage Forests -- rates no permanent protection: the moratorium temporarily halts road building in about half of it, but only where tracts are 5,000 acres or larger. The Heritage Forests Campaign (HFC, see link below), an alliance of conservationists, educators, scientists, clergy and citizens, considers the whole lot irreplaceable and in dire need of preservation. Their goal is to see that unprotected scenic wilderness forests are permanently safeguarded, "Because once they're gone, they're gone forever."
HFC charges that the USFS has fallen short by accepting these four components exclusively for their final long-term policy: 1) Help the agency to build more "environmentally friendly" logging roads in the future; 2) Develop a system for road removal; 3) Help it determine how to upgrade roads where necessary; and, 4) Settle the issue in Congress by finding "new and dependable funding" for roads.
HFC points out that ten to fifteen million acres, nearly half of the Heritage forests, are exempted from the measure because they comprise parcels between 1,000 and 5,000 acres -- an arbitrary ruling that keeps them from the official roadless survey. Criticizing the lack of vision for a comprehensive plan, HFC explains that because these lands are not protected from logging, mining and oil and gas drilling, the roads those activities require are endorsed and inevitable. Even the "interim protected" areas are subject to continued logging through helicopter timber sales.
Another loophole in the policy involves fifteen million roadless acres in 26 National Forests under "revised forest management plans" that allow continued timber harvests despite ecological degradation. More than nine million doomed acres are in Alaska's Tongass National Forest alone. (Remember the "riders" on last year's late-term appropriations bill?) Most of the rest are in Rocky Mountain and Pacific Northwest states.
The Wilderness Society (TWS, see link below) claims that commercial logging in national forests cost taxpayers $45 million in fiscal year 1997 -- $42 million alone from the Tongass National Forest. The group said that 83 of 104 commercial logging operations in national forests actually cost taxpayers more money to make the trees accessible than was returned from sales of wood cut in their forests. That should come as no surprise since the federal timber program has lost hundreds of millions of dollars each year for most of the current decade, and the Forest Service admitted an $88 million loss for 1997. (TWS figures are more conservative because they subtracted revenues paid by timber companies to the states.) The federal treasury collected less than 10 percent of the $1.85 billion worth of timber sold over the last three years by the USFS to private loggers, according to a General Accounting Office audit.
The cost doesn't end there. Every new road requires continued maintenance, and there is already a $10 billion maintenance backlog for the existing 440,000 miles of roads in national forests. Last year a bill to divert funds from road and trail maintenance to support new logging operations was narrowly rejected. And the expense is not going to decline. The reasons that these areas are still roadless (high elevation, steepness and erodibility) are precisely the same reasons that they should be protected from road building and other impacts: in these areas the risks to stream habitats from disturbance are extremely high.
Closer to home, logging roads already criss-cross almost 75 percent of national forest land in the southern Appalachian region. Only eight percent of it (one percent of total land in the region) has permanent legal protection to remain in its natural state; another 760,000 acres (about two percent of the public forests) will be protected by the new measure. More than fifteen percent remains undeveloped and unprotected, despite the best efforts of groups such as the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition (SAFC, see link below).
The Southern Appalachians hold the largest remaining blocks of forest for the eastern United States, but compared to the West they are only fragmented tracts. So far, steep and difficult terrain has protected southern Appalachian roadless areas. The same attributes make them unsuitable for wholesale logging efforts. The results are long-term erosion and sedimentation of fish and wildlife habitat and increasing water pollution of drinking water sources for downstream communities. Roadless areas also provide critical habitats and refuge areas for wildlife of adjoining ecosystems; they act as biotic caches for regeneration and population expansion.
About one-quarter of southern Appalachian roadless areas have been targeted for logging in recent years. Because this is only one percent of the volume for the entire Forest Service Southern Region, timber programs would not be affected by permanent protection. SAFC has been instrumental in educating Congress about the need for intact, natural forests. A bipartisan group of senators from the Southern Appalachians wrote to USDA Secretary Dan Glickman asking him to end federal sales in the region. "There would be numerous benefits from this deferral of [timber] sales including: 1) securing high-quality watershed and fisheries; 2) preserving the natural settings and forest habitat; and 3) meeting the increasing need for backcountry recreation," the letter explained.
SAFC reminds us that all of this land is public property, owned by citizens, and management of it must be for the higher purposes that do not eliminate other uses. The "tragedy of the commons" is a historical example often quoted by the free-marketeers to show that private property is the best way to conserve land. Village "commons" were public green spaces that everyone was free to use. Greedheads exploited the commons, allowing their sheep and cattle to overgraze and destroy them, while their own private holdings were well maintained and used reservedly. Maybe I just don't get it, but it seems to me that the lesson here is that public land must be protected from exploitative abuse and preserved for all.