U.S. Forest Service plan would prohibit most roads in inventoried roadless areas

The U.S. Forest Service’s preferred alternative in protecting roadless areas in national forests would prohibit almost all road construction on 49.2 million acres of inventoried roadless areas.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service presented its final environmental impact statement and preferred alternative to Secretary Dan Glickman on Nov. 13. Glickman will make a decision on the final plan in December.

“Our national forests are a precious national environmental treasure that we must preserve for future generations,” Glickman said. “In making my final determination, I will carefully consider the Forest Service’s recommendation and the 1.6 million written and oral comments submitted by interested Americans.”

The Forest Service’s preferred plan, one of several alternatives contained in a final environmental impact statement would prohibit most road construction and reconstruction on 49.2 million acres of inventoried roadless areas. That would increase to 58.5 million acres, 2 percent of all U.S. land and 31 percent of Forest Service land, in April 2004 when Tongass National Forest in Alaska would be included.

It would prohibit timber harvesting except for defined stewardship purposes in these same areas. It would allow road construction when necessary for public safety or resource protection.

Stewardship purpose timber harvests would occur only to maintain or improve roadless characteristics. Such harvests would need to improve habitat for threatened, endangered, proposed or sensitive species; reduce the risk of uncharacteristically severe fire; or restore ecological structure, function or processes.

The plan would not prohibit the use of off-road vehicles, as had been proposed in alternatives, in roadless areas.

On the Willamette National Forest, the decision would affect 172,007 acres. Of the 200,000 acres in the Sweet Home Ranger District, approximately 30,000 are in roadless areas. Of that land, only about 4,000 acres are not already regulated as late successional reserves. Only one timber sale is pending in an inventoried roadless area, the Moose Creek Study. That sale is a thinning and does not include construction of new roads.

In conjunction with the rule, Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck intends to work with affected states and local communities to pursue funds to assist with the economic transition resulting from implementation of the final roadless area rule.

The Forest Service’s success in securing appropriations for these purposes would have a direct bearing on its ability to actually implement the programs. Under these mitigations, Dombeck may implement one or more provisions in areas most affected by changes in management of inventoried roadless areas.

Those provisions may include financial assistance to stimulate community-led transition programs and projects in communities most affected by changes in the policy; financial support and action plans, attracting public and private interest to implement local transition plans in coordination with federal and state agencies; and assisting local, state, tribal and federal partners to work with communities most affected by the final roadless area decision.

According to the Forest Service, the proposal responds to strong public sentiment for protecting roadless areas and the clean water, biological diversity, dispersed recreational opportunities, wildlife habitat, forest health and other public benefits associated with them.

The alternative also responds to budgetary concerns with an $8.4 million backlog of maintenance and reconstruction projects in national forests.

“Conservation leadership requires that we stand up for the values and lands entrusted to our care by the American people,” Dombeck said. “Creation of the National Forest System by Gifford Pinchot and Teddy Roosevelt, although unpopular with some at the time, is today viewed as enduring victory for conservation. It is my firm belief future generations will regard this proposal in the same light.”

In developing the roadless plan, the Forest Service sought public input by holding more than 600 public meetings across the nation, with hundreds of thousands of persons participating in the process and generating more than 1.6 million comments that were considered in the analysis and recommendation.

The four-volume environmental impact statement is available on the web at roadless.fs.fed.us. Printed copies will be available for review at all Forest Service offices and local libraries. Copies of the FEIS on CD or hard copy and a summary can be ordered by calling (800) 384-7623 or (703) 605-5299.