The Roadless Area Final Rule: Conservation or Preservation?

In 1978, the United States Forest Service (USFS) began the management of roadless areas, i.e., all areas greater than 5,000 acres and without constructed roads, in a study called Roadless Area Review and Evaluation II (RARE 11). The purpose of this study was to determine the suitability of these roadless areas for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System. On October 13, 1999, twenty-one years later, President Clinton directed the Forest Service to provide long-term protection to inventoried roadless areas, as well as smaller roadless areas not yet inventoried. President Clinton's primary motives in initiating this direction were to reduce the $8.4 billion backlog of road maintenance costs as well as provide a definitive statement on how inventoried roadless areas would be managed in the future. The USFS developed a plan for future management of all roadless areas known as the Final Roadless Area Conservation Rule (Roadless Rule) and released it on January 5, 2001. The Roadless Rule, scheduled to become federal policy on May 12, 2001, will have significant environmental, economical, and social impacts on 58 million acres of public land.

One of the major effects of the Roadless Rule is the impact it will have on the nation's timber supply. Because road construction and timber harvesting will be prohibited on 58.5 million acres of National Forest lands, approximately 30% of all National Forest System (NFS) lands (USDA Summary S-1) under the Roadless Rule, this prohibition will result in an annual loss of 140 million board feet (USDA FEIS 2-26). Although twenty-one states will be affected, the majority of the losses will occur in the states of Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Utah. In fact, Alaska alone will lose 76.6 million board feet of timber annually (USDA FEIS B-5). The current timber program in Alaska averages 179 million board feet annually.

The problem with a reduction in timber volume is that future timber demands will have to be made up from other sources, including private and international forests ("Private Forests"). Many of these lands, because they are under private ownership, are not required to adhere to the same environmental regulations that the USFS lands are governed by (Bartuska 4). For example, timber companies are allowed to harvest trees to within 50 feet of streams whereas the USFS requires that a buffer of at least 300 feet be maintained. One of the largest differences in regulations pertains to clearcutting. The USFS limits clearcuts to 40 acres, whereas private landowners have no size restrictions. Without regulations, problems such as massive clear-cutting and erosion can occur. In essence, the impacts associated with commercial logging will not be reduced or eliminated by the moratorium on logging and road construction; rather, they will be transferred to a different land base and, more likely, amplified.

Another valuable resource that would be adversely impacted by the Roadless Rule is leasable minerals. Although these resources are less notable on a national scale, they are still important in isolated areas due to their economic contributions to local communities. In eastern Utah and western Colorado there are over 60,000 acres of inventoried Roadless areas that contain an estimated 308 million-1.3 billion tons of coal (USDA FEIS Table 3-51). Colorado and Utah are just small examples of the total 30 billion tons of coal on National Forest lands (USDA FEIS 3-316). In addition to coal, vast resources of oil and gas reserves will be restricted from exploration due to the Roadless rule. There are potential oil and gas reserves on over 7.6 million acres of inventoried Roadless areas (USDA FEIS 3-255). Another major mineral that would be affected by the Roadless Rule is phosphate. An estimated 873.3 million tons of phosphate would be locked up on the Caribou-Targhee National Forest in southwest Idaho (USDA FEIS 3-258).

Mineral losses incurred by the Roadless Rule will affect the national supply, but more specifically they will have a severe impact on the communities where minerals are actually mined. Besides the job losses caused by the restriction of mineral exploration, local communities and counties will suffer dramatic losses in payments from government leases. The USDA reports "A portion of the United States Treasury receipts is returned to States and Counties to be used for schools and roads. States receive 50% of leasable receipts on public domain lands, except in Alaska where the State receive 90%."

Due to the constant fluctuations in world oil and gas supplies, domestic sources are becoming more and more important. Even though the amount of NFS lands under oil and gas lease has been decreased by 30 million acres over the past twenty years, national consumption has increased by 14%, and is expected to increase an additional 32% in ten years (National Petroleum Council). Unlike trees, minerals, including oil, coal, and natural gas, are non-renewable resources. The prohibition of their exploration and extraction could contribute to a national energy crisis and subsequent future shortages.

Contrary to the views of many environmental groups, road construction and timber harvest do not always adversely affect forest health. The Temperate Forest Foundation concurs, stating "Active management means foresters must have a complete set of silvicultural tools, including prescribed fire and clearcutting." In nature, clearcuts are created by several factors, including wind, fire, insects, and disease. While fire is the most common tool, all of these factors can produce the same results of removing mature trees and replacing the stand with young seedlings. Many tree species, such as lodgepole pine and aspen, require a major stand-removing disturbance for natural regeneration to take place (Smith 329). Thomas H. Bonnicksen, PhD., a forest science professor at Texas A&M University, has studied ancient forest ecology for 24 years. According to Dr. Bonnicksen, "the loss of nature's clearcuts threatens the health and productivity of America's forests."

Doctor Bonnicksen continues:

Without nature's clearcuts, forests throughout America are growing thicker, and the mosaic structure that characterized the majority of ancient forests is disappearing. The most dramatic decline in forest health is in national parks, wilderness areas and other forest where timber management it prohibited. The decline in forest health is also causing a reduction in wildlife and fish habitat, [and] a decrease in biodiversity.

Clearcutting and prescribed burning are two forestry tools that can mimic the natural disturbances normally introduced by fire, insects, or other elements. By removing a stand of trees through clearcutting, or by removing dense brush and dying trees through underburning, the forest floor is now open for seedlings, much the same way fire or insects would in a natural ecosystem. Robert W. Mutch, writer for the Journal of Forestry, warns that "Many stands are so dense with dead and dying trees, salvage logging will be necessary." Mutch goes on to say "Keeping stands thinned, rapidly salvaging diseased and dying wood, and keeping the understory from becoming overstocked are important steps". As previously stated, the Final Rule will prohibit road construction and timber harvest on one-third of the nation's public forests. Without timber harvest or prescribed burning available as management tools, forest health on many of these acres will continue to decline.

By far, the most significant consequence of the Roadless Rule is the economic impact it will have on people, both directly and indirectly. The USDA estimates that 1,925 jobs will be lost due to the Roadless Rule (USDA Annual Report 37). The majority of these of jobs come from the logging, milling, manufacturing, and distribution of timber off of NFS lands, and results in a total income loss of $55,982,000 (USDA FEIS 3-301). In addition, payments to the States from the U.S. Treasury Department will decrease by $3,652,000 (USDA FEIS 3-301). These payments are used primarily to fund schools and road building. Without them, the decrease noted above will severely impact the budgets of local school districts, as well as the maintenance and construction of county roads. Local communities and schools will not be the only areas affected by the Roadless Rule. By prohibiting logging and road construction, the U.S. government will suffer a reduction of $8.3 million in lost tax revenue (USDA Annual Report 72). Although some of these figures may seem minimal in comparison to other government agencies, the exact cost of job re-training and employment relocation, as well as the loss of a way of life in many rural communities, cannot be fully quantified. While the U.S. government may eventually offset economic losses, the social impacts may never be totally mitigated.

The Roadless Rule, despite the number of negative effects, will be beneficial to the nation's forests. The quality of wildlife habitat, water, socio-economics, recreation and overall aesthetics will be improved. A 1994 survey of Americans showed that there was overwhelming support for healthy public forests and grasslands. The poll also showed support for a balance between recreation and commercial uses such as logging, mining, and grazing (USDA FEIS 3-17).
As indicated by this poll, the American public values recreational opportunities on National Forest Service lands. According to a Sierra Club report, there are 835 million visitor days on National Forests annually, whereas there are only 40 million on all the combined Disney parks (Sierra Club). This feeling is shared not only by the public, but also by Forest Service supervisors and district rangers. On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the highest) Forest Service line officers perceived the public's priority of recreation as a 9 (USDA FEIS 3-17). Under the roadless initiative, recreation associated with backcountry and trails, also known as dispersed recreation, will remain unaffected on 58.5 million acres of roadless areas (USDA Summary S-34). While the Roadless Rule prohibits road construction on these 58.5 million acres, trail construction and maintenance would still be allowed to continue (USDA FEIS 2-7).

In addition to the management of timber and recreation, the USFS is also responsible for maintaining and protecting water sources on public lands. The USFS has been able to do so with the direction given in the Organic Act of 1897 and the Creative Act of 1891 ("National Forests"). Water quality remains an important issue today. Road construction can have negative effects on water quality through the introduction of sediments, changes in water temperature, and an increase in water-nutrient levels (USDA FEIS 3-44). Roads and logging activities contribute to the majority of sedimentation on National Forests. Sedimentation, according to the Forest Service EIS, is "solid materials, both mineral and organic, in suspension or transported by water, gravity, ice, or air." In fact, up to 90 percent of the sedimentation on National Forests is attributed to roads and trails (USDA FEIS 3-45). Sediments in streams can have negative effects on aquatic species. The sediment fills in the spaces in the streambed that provide habitat for insects. This reduction in habitat causes a decrease in insect population, which is a primary food source for fish and other aquatic vertebrates (Waters 72).

In addition to the introduction of sediments, road construction and timber harvest can have negative effects on water temperature. Increases in water temperature occur when trees that provide shade are removed. Without this shade, the sun is able to heat the water, something that can be detrimental to fish species. Elon S. Verry, Ph.D., and others agree with this point, stating, "when temperatures deviate from a species' preferred range, production or reproductive success of that species will decline" (Verry et al 160).

A final positive effect of road construction and timber harvest on water quality is the elevated amounts of nutrients released into stream channels by logging waste. The breakdown of timber byproducts, such as leaves and branches, can release phosphorous, calcium, and potassium (USDA FEIS 3-50) into surrounding water. The problem with this release is that changes in aquatic plant growth can occur. Excess phosphorous in water can stimulate massive algal growth, which in turn promotes excessive bacterial growth. The decomposition done by the bacteria can consume large amounts of oxygen, thus asphyxiating many important species of fish (Gould 1175). One of the primary reasons the Forest Service was founded was to promote water quality and perpetuate a healthy source of drinking and irrigation water. The Roadless Rule has, as one of its major objectives, the goal of continuing this resource value. Prohibition of road construction and logging will help attain this goal.

The Roadless Rule, in addition to ensuring water quality, will protect critical wildlife habitat, a resource rapidly diminishing in the United States. One of the key elements that make up valuable wildlife habitat is its size. For an area of habitat to be effective it must not contain roads and timber harvesting. These two activities can cause fragmentation, the division of large tracts of land into smaller tracts of land (USDA FEIS G-5). The problem with fragmentation is that it reduces or eliminates critical habitat required by most wildlife, including such threatened and endangered species as the northern spotted owl, woodland caribou, bighorn sheep, gray wolf, and the grizzly bear (USDI Fish & Wildlife Service 1-2). Fragmentation and loss of habitat occurs not only from the road construction, but also by it's continued use by vehicles. This continued use cuts off travel lanes, hiding cover areas, and forage (feeding) areas, thereby reducing the amount of available habitat for certain species (Hoover & Wills 25). Loss of habitat and fragmentation can also occur from timber harvest, when trees serving as wildlife cover are removed, and travel lanes are interrupted. When habitat is reduced by road construction and timber harvest, the risk of extinction of a species can increase as the species becomes isolated (Sawicki 2).

Another critical aspect of roadless areas is that they contain vast amounts of old-growth forests. These types of forests are characterized by large, old trees, some with decay and damage, as well as large amounts of wood material on the forest floor (USDA FEIS G-7). All of these key elements are critical for the habitat of a variety of species. The problem faced today is that old-growth forests are disappearing at rapid rate, never to be replaced. For example, the Sierra Club reports that in the Pacific Northwest over 90 percent of old growth forests have been logged (Devall 255). Like the preservation of water quality, the Roadless Rule will help preserve wildlife habitat. In particular, large, continuous stands of old-growth forests will be protected, ensuring the perpetuity of a diverse wildlife population.

Besides the natural resource values that would be protected by the Roadless Rule, another benefit comes in the form of economic savings. To build and maintain roads requires a considerable amount of money, most of which is derived from congressionally appropriated dollars. However, as Congress continues to reduce the national debt, agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service are forced to operate on reduced budgets. In fact, the backlog on road maintenance and reconstruction alone is $8.4 billion, and the Forest Service receives only 20 percent of the funding needed to maintain the existing road system of 380,000 miles (Notice of Intent !). By prohibiting road construction, future maintenance and construction costs will be reduced (USDA Summary S-33).

In addition to road construction and maintenance, taxpayer dollars are also used to fund the Forest Service timber program. While this program was never designed to make a profit, the economic losses have grown dramatically in recent years. The General Accounting Office reports between 1992 and 1997, taxpayers lost $2 billion on the logging program (Sierra Club). The Roadless Rule will, by prohibiting road construction and logging, reduce this type of annual loss. The reduction of logging will not have the drastic economical impacts on timber-dependant communities that some of the public perceive. In fact, communities like Darby and Columbia Falls, Montana, both of which have experienced a 90 percent decrease in timber harvests from adjacent National Forests, have experienced population growths of 51 and 44 percent respectively (Power).

The Roadless Area Conservation Rule has some beneficial effects, both environmental and economical. However, resulting the negative impacts far outweigh the positive effects. Without roads and timber harvest, proper forest management cannot occur, resulting in a decline of both forest health and the aesthetic qualities so valued by supporters of the Roadless Rule. Also, there will be adverse economic impacts at the local, state, and federal levels due to the loss of thousands of jobs and of millions of dollars generated by the resources located on these roadless areas. The economic and scientific data show that to execute the Final Roadless Area Conservation Rule would demonstrate poor judgment and a disregard for proper ecosystem management.

Works Cited

  1. Bonnicksen, Thomas H., Ph.D. "Historical Perspective." Fire Ecology Jan. 1997: 8+.
  2. Bartuska, Ann M. "Forest Service Comments on the Report Entitled 'The Economic Case Against National Forest Logging'." 6 Nov. 2000.
  3. Devall, Bill, ed. Clearcut: The Tragedy of Industrial Forestry. San Francisco: The for Deep Ecology, 1993.
  4. Foundation Company, Gould, James L., and Keeton, William T. Biological Science. New York: W.W. Norton Inc., 1996.
  5. Hoover, Robert L., and Wills, Dale L., eds. Managing Forested Lands For Wildlife. Denver, CO: Eastwood Printing & Publishing, 1984.
  6. Keenan, Bill, and Gaumintz, Lisa, eds. Wisconsin's Forestry Best Management Practice For Water Quality. Madison, WI: Wisconsin DNR, 1995.
  7. Mutch, Robert W. "Forest Health." Journal of Forestry Feb. 1998: 34+
  8. National Petroleum Council. 1999. Natural Gas-Meeting the Challenges of the Nation's Growing Natural Gas Demand. Volume I, Summary Report.