The Threat of Repealing the Roadless Area Conservation Act

IF YOU DOUBT, even a little, that every American wilderness is under a grave threat, you need to spend one minute with Scott Stouder.

Stouder grew up in Idaho looking at forests the way farm boys view com: They were a crop to be harvested. "I'm from a fourth-generation logging family, and I was running a D7 CAT when I was 11," Stouder says. "I cut timber for 21 years." And when he wasn't cutting trees, he was hunting elk and deer and fishing for steelhead.

"I take a backseat to no man when it comes to knowing what it means to make your living off the land. That's the reason I'm so passionate about saving our roadless areas. I know how important they are to fish and wildlife. And I know just how much damage can be done if we open them to logging and mining.

"I know, because I used to be part of destroying them--until I learned better."

WILD CLAIMS

Repealing the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which seeks to protect the nation's last remaining wild lands from development, has been a top priority of the Bush administration (and its friends in the logging and mining industries) since it entered the White House in 2001. To enlist sportsmen in its efforts, the administration claimed that the rule was a sneaky backroom deal Bill Clinton struck with green groups in the last days of his tenure. They claimed it not only locked out average Americans--including sportsmen--from millions of acres of public lands, but made prime hunting and fishing turf the exclusive playgrounds of elite backpackers, bird-watchers, and assorted other tree huggers.

They were right about the timing: Clinton made the move in his final days. But the rest is complete fiction. Fortunately, sportsmen like Stouder know better.

The roadless rule was no backroom deal but rather the most widely supported initiative in the history of the U.S. Forest Service. The agency held more than 600 public meetings over almost 20 years and received a record-breaking 1.7 million public comments--95 percent of which supported keeping these areas free from roads and development.

And the rule is balanced. It allows new roads for purposes such as fighting fires or thinning forests as part of fire prevention efforts or wildlife management work; it closes no existing roads or trails; it permits continued operation of energy projects within existing leases and upholds private landowner rights to access inholdings.

Among the supporters of the rule were fish and wildlife biologists and the overwhelming majority of hunters and anglers in Western states, where most of these lands happen to be.

HOW TO RUIN A WILDERNESS

That didn't stop the Bush administration. It amended the rule in 2003, stripping protection from Alaska's Tongass National Forest, then repealed it entirely in 2005, replacing it with a complicated process requiring state governors to petition the Forest Service for roadless protection on national forest lands in their states. And the administration could still refuse the request.

Most Western states didn't like that idea, in part because they have seen what the rush for energy development has already done to once-wild fish and wildlife habitat. The attorneys general of California, Arizona, and Oregon filed suit opposing Bush's repeal of the rule. And the governors of Montana and Oregon also objected to the change, for the same reason: Their citizens had already spoken in support of the rule.

Last September the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the Bush repeal on the grounds that the administration did not follow the legal process mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act or the Endangered Species Act.

Even that didn't end the threat. With the administration's blessing, foes of the roadless rule were using the Administrative Procedure Act to request that specific forests become exempt. Further, the 9th Circuit upheld the Tongass exemption because the administration had followed the law there.

DISTORTING THE TRUTH

Sportsmen's and green groups know lasting protection can only be obtained by legislative action, and a bipartisan group of representatives and senators have responded with the Roadless Rule Conservation Act to do just that. But in the last Congress, the administration's supporters kept the efforts bottled up in committee.

That could change now that power has shifted in Congress to Democrats, many of whom voiced support for the act before last year's elections. But opponents of the rule continue to cloud debate with a blizzard of distortions. Chief among these is that the roadless rule is not critical to fish and wildlife, and that it reduces hunting and angling opportunities and forces people off national lands.

Let's look at those assertions.

Are roadless areas important to fish and wildlife? A 2005 study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that West Slope cut-throats and bull trout populations in roadless areas were often healthier than those in areas with roads. According to a 2004 report for Trout Unlimited, 68 percent of Idaho's bull trout streams and 74 percent of its steelhead and chinook habitat were in roadless areas; and the largest bull elk and mule deer bucks were killed in roadless areas.

Do roads hurt fish and wildlife? The USDA says that roads act as vectors for invasive plants that degrade habitat for wildlife and fish. A 2004 TU study established that 94 percent of the sediment-impaired and degraded streams in Idaho are in roaded areas. A 1997 Forest Service study found that viable bull trout and cutthroat populations in a seven-state area of the Columbia River basin were negatively affected as roads in the forests became denser. And a 2000 study in Conservation Biology showed reduced fish, wildlife, and plant populations due to restricted movement of populations, higher mortality, habitat fragmentation, invasion of exotic species, and increased human access.

Does the roadless rule close more land to hunting and fishing? Absolutely not. About 58 million acres in 39 states are covered by roadless designation. Twice as many acres are open to roads.

But won't opening roadless areas to road building increase opportunities for hunters and anglers?

Let's go back to Scott Stouder for that answer.

He left logging "when I was finally educated about the damage our forestry policy was doing to the future of what I felt so passionate about--hunting and fishing." He became a writer and joined Trout Unlimited as its western field coordinator. And he hates efforts to end the roadless rule for the false promise being sold to sportsmen who don't visit roadless areas today.

"The reason these places are attractive is because they do produce the biggest bulls and bucks and trout and salmon," Stouder says. "But if we push roads into these areas, productivity will begin to drop. We'll degrade the habitat through erosion and fragmentation and the development that comes with that. So there may be an initial surge in opportunity, but in a few years, people will stop coming because the rewards won't be there. We'll have destroyed these precious remaining areas for nothing."

Well, not if you run a logging or mining operation. And that's what this fight is really about. Do we want fish and wildlife, or wood chips and coal dust?

SPORTSMEN HELP SAVE PUBLIC LAND

WHEN I WAS RESEARCHING "The Killing Fields," the May 2006 Conservation department about rampant drilling and energy development on public lands in the West, it became clear that a small group of government officials was being deliberately untruthful about the impact that development would have on wildlife. It was my great luck to find citizens--from public servants in federal agencies to landowners, hunting guides, and small-town businesspeople--who were greatly concerned about the damage that could occur from those plans, and I let them speak loudly in the story. It was the voices of these citizens, and the many readers of FIELD & STREAM who listened to them and spoke out, that resulted in the passage of New Mexico Rep. Tom Udall's Valle Vidal Protection Act late last year, which bans all development on that 100,000-acre wildlands region in New Mexico (vallevidal.org). Sportsmen should be proud of their accomplishment.

LANDS AT RISK

APPROXIMATELY 58.5 MILLION ACRES of land in 39 states is designated as roadless. Some noteworthy regions at risk:

Idaho and Montana together have 15.7 million roadless acres, and more than half are at risk if the Bush administration remains unchallenged by Congress.

Roads are already being built in Alaska's Tongass National Forest, one of the most valuable incubators of prime fish and game. Congressional action could protect 9.3 million acres of unroaded lands there.

Far fewer roadless areas exist in the Southeast, which makes them even more precious. The region has 728,487 such acres, of which the Bush policy would open 553,000, or 76 percent of the total. Of particular concern are the Bald Mountain Roadless Area in the Cherokee and Pisgah National Forests of Tennessee and North Carolina, and the Cheoah Bald Roadless Area in the Nantahala National Forest of North Carolina.

To participate with conservation groups active in the fight, contact your state chapter or national offices of the National Wildlife Federation (nwf.org), Trout Unlimited (tu.org), the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (trcp.org), and the Heritage Forests Campaign (ourforests.org/roadless).