Roads and roadless

Published April 1, 2000

The drive to keep the American public out of public lands is picking up speed as the Clinton-Gore administration seeks ways to close off even more than the 60 million-plus acres already classified as roadless (see accompanying chart).

The Clinton-Gore strategy includes four key elements:

  • a broad and nebulous definition of “roadless”;
  • planned destruction and suspended maintenance of many roads, thereby making more areas “roadless”;
  • banning “off-road” travel; and
  • increasing restrictions on timber harvest–already reduced by 75 to 90 percent, virtually starving out many forest communities–and reductions in mining.

Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck has issued press releases claiming he will maintain the multi-use policies of past successful forest management. But property rights groups, including People for the USA and the American Land Rights Alliance, warn that the Clinton-Gore plan virtually mandates reductions in, and in some cases elimination of, human activities in the forests.

Dombeck’s own statements, made in a less-guarded setting than a formal press release, seem to prove this view correct.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported on January 26 that Dombeck told the Commonwealth Club of California that the 383,000 miles of roads crisscrossing National Forests and grasslands once were considered essential for implementing the agency’s “multiple-use” of encouraging mining, logging, grazing and recreation.

But today, Dombeck asserted, public sentiment has changed. “We’re moving from an era where roads were considered a capital improvement to now, when they are considered a liability.”

While noting the agency has enough money to maintain only 17 percent of its roads, Dombeck failed to mention that this is largely due to his own policy initiatives, which have cut logging revenues by 75 percent.

Road repair no longer a priority

Arbitrary shifts in forest management policy, however, may not be within the Forest Service’s authority. In 1960, Congress passed the Multiple-Use, Sustained-Yield Act, which established that National Forests must be “managed for recreation, range, timber watershed, wildlife, and fish purposes.”

Nevertheless, many existing forest roads are being allowed to fall into such a sorry state of disrepair they have become unusable–even when local citizens offer to repair them at their own expense.

The most dramatic example to date of the Forest Service’s desire to allow roads to become unusable–regardless of cost or residents’ wishes–continues in the Humboldt-Toiybee National Forest, near Elko, Nevada, as we go to press.

When a section of the Jarbridge Road–a dirt road leading to a trailhead and several prized fishing and camping sites–washed out in 1995, the Forest Service refused to repair it, claiming such repairs would cause excessive run-off. Under increasing pressure to repair the road, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt declared the bull trout, which lives in the Jarbridge River, a “threatened species.” The Forest Service seized on that designation–which by law required no evidence or scientific proof–as justification for its continued refusal to repair the washout.

In late January, protesters in everything from horse-drawn wagons to off-road vehicles carried 10,000 shovels through Elko to demonstrate their determination to repair the road at their own expense and with their own labor. Reportedly, over 3,000 people in the town of little more than 8,000 lined the parade route. Some carried signs that said “Stop Clinton’s War on the West.”

“We have learned we must stand together, shoulder to shoulder, to defeat those who would destroy our way of life and the West as we know it,” John Carpenter, an Elko state assemblyman, told the demonstrators.

Governor Kenny Guinn agreed. In a letter to Carpenter, he wrote, “Since the vast majority of the public lands are in the West, perhaps the bureaucrats in Washington, DC, simply don’t understand the impact their decisions have on our western way of life.” Guinn added, “Sometimes the only way to get their attention is to stand up for our rights.”

In the face of overwhelming support from local residents and state government for reopening Jarbridge Road, the Clinton-Gore administration has stood firm, and its Forest Service continues to stand in the way of repairing the road.

Off-highway vehicles targeted, too

While Forest Service Deputy Chief Chris Wood told Environment & Climate News last fall that the service had not yet decided on the definition of a “roadless area,” it now appears to have fallen back on a 1977 definition, which says roadless areas are those “within which there are no improved roads maintained for travel by means of motorized vehicles intended for highway use.” That definition clearly would exclude roads used for timber, mining, and four-wheel drive recreation, as well as “unimproved” trails.

Nevertheless, the Clinton-Gore administration continues to pursue efforts that would prevent forest access by off-highway vehicles. Wood has told his forest supervisors to limit off-highway vehicles to strictly designated areas. The Bureau of Land Management has announced a similar policy, blaming the increased use of such vehicles on “urban sprawl,” according to a BLM press release. The Associated Press, by contrast, has reported that industry and some government authorities attribute the increased use of off-highway vehicles to a booming economy, technical advances that have improved their performance, and an aging population that increasingly relies on them to access difficult-to-reach wilderness areas.