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End of the Road?

  • Shannon Fitzsimmons
  • President Clinton puts a stop to multiple use on national forests

    By Shannon Fitzsimmons

    Laws can be repealed without Congress doing a thing. The president’s “roadless initiative,” which would ban road construction in over 43 million acres of national forest, is the latest step in the gradual repeal of the laws governing the Forest Service.

    Traditionally, the Forest Service had a goal of producing timber, but also coordinating “outdoor recreation, range, timber, watershed, wildlife and fish and wilderness” [16 U.S.C. 1600 Sec. 6(e)(1)]. This mandate has been virtually replaced by a new vision that stresses setting land aside so that it is largely untouched by human beings. As the Forest Service (1999) now states, its goal is to create “a new vision by making sustainability the foundation for planning and decision making.”

    The change reflects a president eager for an environmental legacy, an acquiescent Congress, and- perhaps most important-a long-time shift in lobbying power between environmentalists and the timber industry.

    President Clinton’s 1999 directive has just been issued as a proposed Forest Service rule. It applies to about 22 percent of the nation’s federally owned forests and has three parts. The first prohibits road reconstruction and construction on the 43 million acres. The second guides forest supervisors in identifying additional smaller roadless areas and managing them in accordance with the new vision. The third deals with Alaska’s Tongass National Forest separately. There is no way to know how much land the second portion of the initiative will affect. But alone, the 43 million acres are more than a fifth of our total national forests-an area larger than the state of Washington.

    There are other signs of metamorphosis in Forest Service philosophy, too. For example, a proposed road management policy would manage the existing road system along the lines of the same vision. Several major national forests, including Colorado’s White River National Forest, are revising their forest plans. The process is bitterly contentious as it reflects a broad proposed planning rule that places ecological sustainability above economic or social uses (Forest Service 1999).

    This new vision of highly restricted use is not limited to the Forest Service. Using the Antiquities Act of 1906, President Clinton has declared five national monuments and has plans to create more. This is comparable to creating national parks by simply announcing them. The most notable designation is Utah’s new 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, (weighing in at just under Yellowstone National Park at 2.2 million acres), and the most recent is California’s Giant Sequoia National Monument. The Clinton administration is eyeing Idaho’s Great Rift near the already existing Craters of the Moon National Monument, Montana’s Missouri Breaks, and the Steens Mountain area of Oregon, among other areas, for further national monument designations. In a High Country News column (April 4, 2000), Rochelle Oxarango lamented the undemocratic spirit of these designations: “King William had sent his knight in flying armor, Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt, on another crusade to claim a chunk of the West.”

    Daringly, each sweeping directive makes drastic changes without congressional approval. By law, Congress alone can designate wilderness; the executive branch only has the authority to identify and recommend it. According to the Wilderness Act [16 U.S.C. 1121 Sec. 2(c)], wilderness is “an area where earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man. . . without permanent improvements or human habitation.” By prohibiting roads, the roadless initiative creates de facto wilderness area. Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck said as much when he stated that “the last vestiges of wilderness, the roadless areas, hang in the balance” (Subcommittee on Forests and Public Lands Management 1999).

    The Forest Service already manages 34.75 million acres of congressionally designated wilderness- roughly one third of the national total. The roadless initiative will more than double the amount of national forest land devoted to wilderness use. Even though the rule does not prohibit mining or logging, realistically, without road access they might as well be banned.

    While the president seems to be ensuring his administration’s environmental legacy, the philosophical change has been a long time in the making -reflecting an evolution of the players who affect the public land agencies. Long an agency that worked closely with the timber industry, the Forest Service now caters to the agenda of wilderness advocates.

    In a shift often referred to as “the greening of the Forest Service,” demographics at the agency have changed. In his book on American environmentalism Mark Dowie (1995, 178) notes that when President Clinton took office, “about two dozen environmentalists were hired directly from national environmental organizations and salted strategically throughout the new administration.” He quotes National Audubon Society lobbyist Brock Evans: “I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to walk down the hall of the White House or a government agency and be greeted by your first name” (179). Forest economist Roger Sedjo (1998, 7) says that the Forest Service culture has changed “as staff trained in traditional forestry has been supplemented with those trained in wildlife ecology and the biological sciences.”

    Further evidence of the shift is the fact that even though the initiative would all but prohibit logging on the 43 million acres, the timber industry “has been remarkably quiet” (Williams 2000, 90). The reason? National forests have been dwindling as a source for timber.

    Policies like the 1964 Wilderness Act and the 1973 Endangered Species Act have made large chunks of federal land unavailable for timber. (The Northwest Forest Plan set aside 24 million acres for the northern spotted owl in 1994.) National forests provided 18 percent of the total volume of timber harvested in the United States as recently as 1991, but only 5 percent in 1999. In recent years, more and more federal land has been made off-limits to logging. All too aware of this trend, the timber industry was surprised by the magnitude, not the goal, of the roadless policy.

    Large corporations have shifted from logging on national forests to private land. Boise Cascade Corporation pointed out in its 1999 annual report that “with less government-owned timber available than in years past, we meet an important share of our raw material needs with the 2.3 million acres of timberland we own or control.”

    Meanwhile, smaller members of the forest products community, like independent mills and roundwood producers, have gone out of business. The surviving firms generally do not have the resources needed to seriously challenge federal policy. “Since the listing of the northern spotted owl, 36 mills in my district alone have been forced to close their doors,” said California representative Wally Herger (Subcommittee on Forest and Forest Health 1998) in congressional testimony.

    Of course, some groups are putting up a fight. In fact, small coalitions unhappy about federal programs are springing up throughout the West. In a May 1996 High Country News article, Lisa Jones reported: “Coalitions of environmentalists, ranchers, county commissioners, government officials, loggers, skiers and jeepers are popping up as often as wood ticks across the western landscape.”

    Western governors, who must balance the interests of a wide variety of groups, have attempted to carry this voice to the national level, but not very successfully. The state of Idaho sued the federal government over the roadless initiative, complaining that the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act. The suit claimed that the Forest Service kept maps of affected areas-as much as 8 million acres-and other information from the public during the initial comment period. The court dismissed the case as not being sufficiently “ripe.” And eleven western governors wrote to the president in February, requesting cooperative agency status in formulating the rule. They were ignored.

    In contrast to state governors, Congress has authority to take action. The roadless initiative is an executive act. Yet prohibiting access to roughly one quarter of our national forests, the roadless initiative represents a major departure from the traditional uses of executive authority. Over 350,000 written comments were received by the Forest Service during a six-week comment period on the draft rule. But because the initiative is a presidential directive, the rule need not even address these comments.

    Political scientists William J. Olson and Alan Woll (1999, 22) have observed that throughout the twentieth century, “presidential power has too often rushed down in a single torrent.” They urge that “Congress, the states, and the courts” perform their duties. Congress has yet to follow this advice. The idea of protecting roadless areas has a powerful environmental image and thus strong public support, even though significant evidence suggests that such extreme levels of preservation may be detrimental to forest health and safety (Fretwell 1999). Still, the anti-environmental stigma is persuasive disincentive to act.

    Since it is not a law, the initiative could be overturned by either the courts or a future presidential administration. So its fate is uncertain. This uncertainty leaves the Forest Service in limbo, operating without codified policy. Said Zane Smith in a Eugene, Oregon, newspaper, (Register-Guard, November 23, 1999): “Local officials are left to twist in the wind while their superiors ignore the reality of conflicting values and objectives shared by the citizens who own the national forests.”

    Dowie, Mark. 1995. Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
    Forest Service. 1999. Proposed Regulation Planning Overview. September 29. Available at: http://
    Fretwell, Holly Lippke. 1999. Forests: Do We Get What We Pay For? Public Lands Report II. Bozeman, MT: PERC, July.
    Olson, William J., and Alan Woll. 1999. Executive Orders and National Emergencies: How Presidents Have Come to “Run the Country” by Usurping Legislative Power. Policy Analysis 358. Washington DC: Cato Institute.
    Sedjo, Roger. 1998. Forest Service Vision: Or, Does the Forest Service Have a Future? Discussion Paper 99-03. Washington, DC: Resources for the Future.
    Subcommittee on Forest and Forest Health. 1998. Hearings on the Impact and Status of the Northern Spotted Owl on National Forests. Washington DC: House Committee on Resources, March 19.
    Subcommittee on Forests and Public Lands Management. 1999. Statement Regarding Promulgation of Regulations Concerning the Roadless Areas within the National Forest System. Washington, DC: Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, November 2.
    West, Jonathan P., and Glen Sussman. 1999. Implementation of Environmental Policy: the Chief Executive. In The Environmental Presidency, ed. Denis L. Soden. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
    Williams, Ted. 2000. Clinton’s Last Stand. Audubon, May/June.

    Shannon Fitzsimmons is an intern with PERC. She was recently a member of the Dillon Ranger District trail crew on the White River National Forest.

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