Managing our national forests

Roadless areas: Balancing public interests, Clinton plan would wisely protect valuable natural resources.

June 01, 2000

BOTH MANAGED and wild areas have their place in our National Forest System, a public treasure embracing 192 million acres and 156 separate units.

Over half of that vast acreage has been logged and developed for public use; less than a fifth is set aside as preserved wilderness.

Now the nation is asked to decide how to shape the future of the remaining quarter of this priceless patrimony.

In the boldest conservation step of his tenure, President Clinton proposes to ban road building on these lands, largely protecting them from extensive logging and intensive use.

That is a worthy goal for the greatest public good.

The sweeping executive order, which would bypass Congress, is about roadless areas and not about wilderness. It would leave many decisions about multiple uses to local forest management plans, a sound idea.

But it would halt the costly, wasteful, destructive juggernaut of road building in our untrammeled forests that nurture critical natural ecosystems.

"Of all the things that we do on national forests, road building leaves the most lasting imprint on the landscape," says Michael Dombeck, chief of the U.S. Forest Service.

It also leaves a heavy burden on the taxpayers. There's a legacy of 380,000 miles of (mostly logging) roads built in the National Forest System, with an insuperable $10 billion maintenance backlog.

The greatest impact would be on the timber industry. But only 5 percent of the national timber harvest is from national forests; one-twentieth of that total is on areas affected by the roadless proposal. Logging wouldn't be banned in roadless stretches, but would be economically prohibitive there.

The greatest flaw in the plan is exclusion of the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, whose roads policy will be decided in 2004. Political considerations, and respect for the Alaskan national lands law, dictated this decision. But that can be changed, and should be in the Forest Service's final plan, given the heavy public subsidy for logging in that crown jewel of system.

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