New Forest Service proposal for roadless areas alarms greens

By Katherine Pfegler Associated Press Writer
Thursday September 27, 2001

WASHINGTON — The Forest Service is proposing to give its local managers more discretion to skip environmental analysis and public input for small logging and road-building projects in some of the most pristine areas of the national forests. 

The agency is seeking public input on the proposal, which environmentalists say is further indication of the Bush administration’s desire to roll back the Clinton-era “roadless rule” banning logging and road building on a third of national forest lands. 

“The Forest Service is changing the rules so that it doesn’t have to do the environmental reviews” in some cases, said Mike Anderson, senior research analyst with the Wilderness Society. “There are a number of forest activists that are quite alarmed about it.” 

Rhey Solomon, the Forest Service’s assistant director for ecosystem management coordination, acknowledged the way the proposal is written gives some environmentalists cause to be upset. 

“I would be the first to say that using the words we have used now, there may be some significant concerns,” he said. 

Solomon said the intent was to clarify conflicting court decisions to allow some limited projects in sensitive areas — such as installing a rain gauge or collecting mushrooms — to go forward without lengthy review. 

However, as written, the proposal also could give Forest Service officials discretion to decide on a case-by-case basis whether analysis or public comment are needed before allowing small timber sales, limited road construction, certain mining projects, off-road vehicle trails and other development in environmentally sensitive areas. 

“It has some bad implications for roadless area protection,” Anderson said. “What is going on is the Forest Service is making it easier for managers to do management activities in roadless areas and other environmentally sensitive areas by giving them greater discretion.” 

Roadless areas have been a controversial issue for the Bush administration, which promised revisions to the roadless rule in May, arguing that all local interests hadn’t provided input before Clinton adopted the rule just before leaving office. The administration officially reopened debate on the issue in July, asking the public 10 questions about the policy. The responses still are under evaluation. 

A timber industry representative was hoping that the latest proposal would lead to faster decision-making, particularly on projects to remove trees from dense forests to reduce wildfire risks, called thinning. 

“You’ve got to look at the consequences of not doing something, and those may be greater than the consequences of doing ... something minor,” said Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council. “That’s how the assessment needs to be done, especially in times where we’ve got so many areas at risk for catastrophic wildfire.” 

The Forest Service made the proposal in the Sept. 20 Federal Register. It is seeking public input until Nov. 19.