Roadless area rule won’t achieve forest diversity

Published October 1, 2000

The Forest Service’s draft roadless area regulation could harm the nation’s forests and fails to look at alternatives that might better address the diversity of the forests, according to a public interest comment submitted to the agency by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

The Forest Service’s proposal would ban the construction of new roads on 43 million acres of inventoried roadless areas in National Forests around the country.

“A blanket prescription issued from Washington cannot address the wide ecological diversity of our national forests,” said Randal O’Toole, a senior economist at the Thoreau Institute and author of the comment on behalf of the Mercatus Center’s Regulatory Studies Program.

“For instance, forest managers in states such as Arizona and New Mexico might decide a road is necessary in order to protect the forest from fires, while a different policy may be needed to protect a forest in Georgia,” he noted. In the comment, O’Toole questions why the Forest Service’s proposed regulation fails to consider important alternatives, including improving incentives for local forest managers as well as alternatives that would allow temporary, low-impact roads when needed for forest health or ecosystem restoration. Temporary roads could save money, reduce the chances of another Los Alamos disaster, and be closed and restored to a natural condition after use. “The analysis shows the proposed rule will impose unnecessary economic and environmental costs on the National Forests,” said Susan E. Dudley, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center.

Dudley explained, “The economic cost will be high because a ban on roads will increase the cost of improving forest health or restoring ecosystems in some roadless areas. The environmental cost will be high because, without such improvements, many roadless area ecosystems will continue to deteriorate and may even suffer catastrophic fires and other ecological problems.”

“Due to other Forest Service policies, such as fire suppression and removal of predators, roadless areas may be wild, but they are hardly natural,” concluded O’Toole. “While ignoring the important debate over wildness vs. naturalness, the proposal comes down in favor of unnatural wildness, and does not recognize that some ecosystem management involving temporary roads could restore forests to a more natural state.”

For more information

For a complete copy of the public interest comment, contact Laura O’Quinn at 703/993-4945 or, visit the Mercatus Center’s Web site at