Clinton’s forest legacy could be complete

The Associated Press
Saturday November 18, 2000

With President Clinton’s roadless plan nearly final, the administration has one more proposal that could forever leave his imprint on national forests – a rule making it tougher for foresters to add to the 380,000-mile road system in national forests. 

Forest managers would have to conduct an analysis and an environmental study, gain approval from a regional forester and show a compelling need before a new road could be built. The proposed roads rule should become final within a month. 

The roads rule, together with the roadless plan announced last Monday and a Nov. 9 rule that elevates the importance of the environment in forest management, completes Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck’s vision for national forests. 

In his nearly four years as chief, Dombeck has tried to transform the 192 million acres of forests – once valued mostly for their timber, minerals and grazing – into areas cherished for recreation, clean water and old-growth timber. 

“Taken together these three rules ... really do thrust us into the 21st century in how we view national forests,” Dombeck said. “Our priorities have never been clearer.” 

But are the three rules a forest legacy or merely a false start? 

Michael Goergen, director of forest policy for the Society of American Foresters, a foresters’ professional group based in Bethesda, Md., sees the move away from more active management of forests as a recipe for catastrophic fires and bug infestation. 

“It absolutely redefines the Forest Service – the question is whether that’s appropriate,” Goergen said. “The legacy of the Clinton administration is going to be litigation, anger and ultimately poor management decisions.” 

The Nov. 9 rule – the only of the trio that has become final – means that forest managers will be less likely to allow logging, skiing or other activities under forest management plans if they believe those actions will permanently harm the ecosystem. 

The roadless rule, due to become final in mid-December, bans road building and restricts logging and mining in 58.5 million acres – nearly a third of national forests – that are already roadless. 

The roads rule, which applies to all forest lands and overlaps the other two regulations, makes it clear that the agency’s era of road building is over. Environmentalists believe roads increase erosion, disrupt wildlife habitat and make it easier for logging trucks and mining operators to reach public lands. 

“We’ve got 380,000 miles of roads in the national forest system. Seems like that’s almost enough,” Dombeck said. 

The trio of rules – which are being enacted through executive orders, not congressional action – are the first pro-environment national policies to come from the chief’s office in the 100-year history of the Forest Service, said Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, a Eugene, Ore., environmental group. 

The Reagan and Bush administrations thwarted the implementation of the 1976 National Forest Management Act, a law brokered by the late Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey, D-Minn., that Stahl calls the last major federal law directing use of national forests. 

“It’s taken a quarter century, but we finally realized Hubert Humphrey’s promise that the national forests are more than just trees – and more than just timber,” Stahl said. 

Chris Wood, Dombeck’s aide, said the drive to more actively protect forest land began more than a decade ago and was driven by public desire. He said the drive will continue for generations to come, regardless of who is president. 

“These changes are less revolutionary than they are evolutionary,” he said. 

But is it too soon to talk of forest legacy? Each of the three rules is – or will be – targeted with lawsuits. 

“Before he (Clinton) can assume the mantel of Theodore Roosevelt, let’s see whether this stuff lasts 100 days or 100 months, let alone a hundred years,” said Mark Rey, an aide to Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho. “Unlike Roosevelt, none of this was done with the cooperation of Congress.” 

Critics of the Forest Service rules believe a court will overturn the roadless plan as too broad. They contend the Nov. 9 rule violates a 1960 federal law requiring forests to have multiple uses, including timber harvests and grazing. 

“They’ve set themselves up for a legal fall,” Craig said. 

There is also a chance that George W. Bush would assume the presidency next month with narrow GOP majorities in the House and Senate. 

“The potential for a reversal of the direction that Dombeck has been taking the Forest Service is pretty frightening if Bush is elected,” said Mike Anderson, senior resource analyst of The Wilderness Society in Seattle. 

Bush could use a federal rulemaking, or sign GOP legislation, to limit the reach of one or more of the Dombeck rules, said Doug Crandall, chief of staff for the House forests and forest health subcommittee. 

The GOP does not likely have the votes to scuttle the rules outright, just as Democrats in Congress would not have had the votes to pass legislation to implement the rules, he said. 

Crandall contends that the public’s view of forest policy is sharply divided along the same lines as the electoral map in the recent presidential election. Rural voters who favored Bush want more access and use of forests, while urban voters who backed Vice President Al Gore favor more protective policies. 

Dombeck’s supporters are divided about how successful a Bush administration could be in reversing President Clinton’s forest direction. Some say public opinion and the legal difficulty of enacting new rules will hamper Bush. 

Others disagree. Marty Hayden, legislative director Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., said of the roadless policy: “If we face a Bush administration, this whole thing could be at risk.”  

On the Net: 

Forest Service: http://www.fs.fed.us/