Published: July 18, 2004
The Bush administration has taken apart so many environmental regulations that one more rollback should not surprise us. Even so, it boggles the mind that the White House should choose an election year to dismantle one of the most important and popular land preservation initiatives of the last 30 years — a Clinton administration rule that placed 58.5 million acres of the national forests off limits to new road building and development.
There are no compelling reasons to repudiate that rule and no obvious beneficiaries besides a few disgruntled Western governors and the timber, oil and gas interests that have long regarded the national forests as profit centers. It's not even a case of election-year pandering to Western voters; indeed, early returns suggest that most Westerners below the rank of governor do not like the Bush proposal at all. Especially aggrieved is the so-called hook and bullet crowd — anglers and hunters who, though overwhelmingly Republican, have become increasingly disenchanted with the administration's timid and in some cases careless policies on wetlands, mercury pollution and oil and gas exploration on sensitive public lands.
One explanation is that the timber industry's allies in the Agriculture Department, where the proposal was hatched, sensed they were running short of time to complete their demolition job on the forest protections they inherited from the previous administration. Over the last three years, the department has weakened carefully devised agreements aimed at preserving old growth trees in the Tongass National Forest, in the Pacific Northwest and in the Sierra Nevada. It has persuaded Congress to adopt a fire-prevention strategy aimed at least as much at helping the timber industry as it is at saving communities from devastation. And it has proposed revisions in forest management policies that would short-circuit environmental reviews, weaken safeguards for endangered species and limit public participation in land-use decisions.
For broad impact, though, nothing quite matches the decision to scuttle the roadless rule. Nearly three years in the making, that rule essentially gave blanket protection to some of the last truly wild places in America, critical watersheds for fish and wildlife and important sources of drinking water for metropolitan areas in the West. The Bush administration offers instead a less protective and more uncertain system under which state and local officials would become the moving force in deciding whether to log or conserve forest lands. This represents a big swing in the ideological pendulum, essentially returning control of an important part of national forest policy to the very people from whom Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, both Republicans, wrested it when they established the Forest Service a century ago.
Killing the roadless rule is also indefensible on fiscal grounds. There are already 365,000 miles of roads in the roughly 90 million acres of national forests that are and will remain open to commercial development. Many of these roads are in poor shape, crying out for maintenance. It makes no economic sense to build more.
The administration promises that prohibitions on roads and logging will be continued on a much smaller number of roadless acres already protected under forest plans that predated the Clinton rule — a "just trust us" attitude that inspires universal suspicion among conservationists. White House officials argued further that the rule's one-size-fits-all policy ignored local needs, and that two unfavorable court decisions had left them little choice but to junk the Clinton program and propose a new one.
This is disingenuous. It is true that district judges in Idaho and Wyoming had invalidated the rule. But the administration offered only a perfunctory defense in Idaho and not much more in Wyoming. More to the point, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit overturned the Idaho decision, and there was a good chance the 10th Circuit would overturn the Wyoming decision. Indeed, the real motive for the rollback may have been to get the new rule out before the legal landscape shifted completely in favor of the old rule — or before somebody less attentive to the needs of the timber industry moved into the White House.