Bush Gives States More Say Over Road-Building on Federal Lands

Published September 1, 2004

Responding to the pleas of western-state governors seeking more say in the administration of national forests within their borders, the Bush administration on July 12 announced national forests will no longer be off-limits to new road construction. State governors will be encouraged to submit proposals to the federal government regarding the designation of roadless areas in national forests within their individual states.

“Our announcements today illustrate our commitment to working closely with the nation’s governors to meet the needs of local communities, and to maintaining the undeveloped character of the most pristine areas of the national forest system,” said Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman in a July 12 statement.

National Forests Have History of Multiple Uses

In January 2001, in one of the last acts of his presidency, President Bill Clinton designated nearly 60 million acres of national forest lands off-limits for logging and unavailable for the construction of new roads. Clinton’s act reversed decades of federal policy regarding the vision for, and management of, America’s national forests.

Noted Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource studies for the Cato Institute, “As environmentalist icon Gifford Pinchot, the first director of the U.S. Forest Service, wrote in a speech for Teddy Roosevelt in 1901, ‘Forest protection is not an end in itself; it is a means to increase and sustain the resources of our country and the industries which depend on them.'”

From such beginnings, U.S. national forests became a “multiple-use” resource. The federal government committed itself to accommodating the competing interests of recreationists, conservationists, and resource developers. This multiple-use philosophy held sway until it was reversed in the waning hours of the Clinton administration.

Bush Plan Restores Multiple-Use Balance

With the decision announced in July, the Bush administration restores that original multiple-use balance as federal policy. Under the Bush plan, governors are invited to submit their own proposals regarding national forest lands within their individual states. Governors who support strict roadless policies, such as former Clinton cabinet member Bill Richardson, now the Democratic governor of New Mexico, can petition to leave the Clinton rule intact within their states. Others who oppose strict enforcement of a universal roadless rule, such as Republican governor Judy Martz of Montana, can submit a proposal to return the national forest lands in their states to multiple use.

According to the July 12 news release from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is ultimately in charge of shaping the nation’s national forests policy, the U.S. Forest Service will adhere to the following five conservation principles in developing state-specific rules:

  • Make informed decisions to ensure the roadless rule is implemented with more reliable information and accurate mapping, including local expertise and experience.
  • Work with states, tribes, local communities, and the public through a process that is fair, open, and responsive to local input and information.
  • Protect forests to ensure that the potential negative effects of severe wildfires and insect and disease activity are addressed.
  • Protect communities, homes, and property from the risk of severe wildfires and other risks that might exist on adjacent federal lands.
  • Ensure that states, tribes, and private citizens who own property within roadless areas have access to their property as required by existing law.

The Department of Agriculture news release emphasized the role of governors and noted most roadless areas are concentrated in just a few states: “The proposed rule establishes a process for governors to work with the Forest Service to develop locally supported rules for conserving roadless areas in their states. While there are 39 states that have ‘inventoried’ roadless areas on National Forest System lands within their boundaries, just 12 states contain 56.6 million acres, or 97 percent, of all roadless areas in the country. Those states are: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.”

In the interim period before governors craft their proposals and submit them for federal approval, the U.S. Forest Service will administer national forest lands in accordance with the five principles noted above.

“State governments are important partners in the stewardship of the nation’s land and natural resources,” said Veneman. “Strong state and federal cooperation in the management of roadless areas will foster strong local involvement and support for a final policy.”

Western Governors Support Multiple Use

Governors in the 12 states with the largest roadless sections have expressed a desire to return to multiple-use policies.

The July 14 Rocky Mountain News observed, “Most Western governors opposed the [Clinton anti-road-building] decision because it alienated entire communities, including local governments, businesses, land managers, and people living closest to the forests. Little wonder it has been the subject of nine lawsuits in federal courts in Idaho, Utah, North Dakota, Wyoming, Alaska, and the District of Columbia.”

“[L]ike clockwork,” the article continued, “a number of environmental groups immediately warned of armies of chainsaw-bearing loggers razing the national forests. But a much less hysterical reading is that the U.S. may be returning to the sensible ‘multiple-use’ policy that had long guided management of most public lands.”

The July 15 Seattle Times noted, “Richardson and Oregon’s Gov. Ted Kulongoski [D] will be empowered to keep their pristine tinderboxes under a signature of their own. But judging by their responses, it’s not as appealing to support radical environmental policies when your office is on the line–such things are more conveniently accomplished through presidential fiat than persuading voters.”

“If any one lesson can be learned from this history,” noted the Rocky Mountain News, “it is the need to restore basic integrity and local input to the process by which public-lands policy is established. Under the Bush proposal, each state would craft and implement its own strategic vision of roadless conservation, with the Forest Service of course having final say. Governors would be allowed to maintain roadless protections or they could seek some exemptions, but not on lands identified as national monuments, national recreation areas, wilderness-study areas, wild and scenic rivers, or national scenic and historic trails.”

Montana Governor Martz agreed with that principle. “State, tribal, and local governments are best equipped to make key decisions about the future of our public lands,” Martz told the Rocky Mountain News.

“The old rule said that Washington, D.C., decision-makers knew better,” observed Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne (R), who had challenged the Clinton roadless rule in court in January 2001. “You’ll [now] be hearing from governors as to what approaches work best for their state, and that’s how it should be.”

“Common-sense environmentalists recognize the importance of striking a balance between environmental conservation and the use of resources to produce economic prosperity–which is itself protective of health and the environment,” commented Dr. Kenneth Green, director of the Center for Studies in Risk, Regulation, and Environment at the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute.

“We also know the importance of local knowledge in environmental policymaking,” Green continued. “Decisions made from afar, by people with little knowledge of local conditions or needs, and who bear no consequences for misjudgment, are bound to be inferior to decisions made at more local levels, by decision-makers who will bear the consequences of their actions.

“In striking a balance between conserving our environmental resources, and using them to produce economic prosperity, state-based decision-making on whether or not to allow road building makes much more sense than a blanket ban out of Washington, D.C.”

James Hoare ([email protected]) is managing attorney at the Syracuse, New York office of McGivney, Kluger & Gannon.