Western land grab by President

Published January 1, 2000

“Over two-hundred years ago we decided that the King would not rule. We decided that the King’s lands would be everyone’s lands. Today, we have an attitude in this administration that not only does King William want to reign, but he appears at this moment to be setting up a monarchy for Prince Albert,” said Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho).

Craig reacted harshly to President Clinton’s announcement of a new plan to set aside up to 40 million acres of land in National Forests as “roadless,” thereby barring public use, timber harvest, and mining. Craig added, “These are not the King’s lands, they are the serfs’ lands, they are the people’s lands. We think they ought to come to the people’s body to form and shape this kind of policy.”

Craig, Representative George Radanovich (R-California), and several other members of the Congressional western caucus held a press conference at which they released a letter to Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck demanding Congressional and public oversight. “To say that the public cannot access their land unless the federal government gives them permission is in fundamental opposition to the freedoms on which our country was founded,” the letter notes.

The letter, signed by 38 Senators and Congressmen, continues, “we are seeing a trend in management policy, specifically in the Forest Service, toward prohibiting access in roadless areas and keeping our public lands closed unless posted open. While the Forest Service might like this step backward to feudal European policies, it is completely unacceptable to us and those who use our public lands.”

The President’s announcement coincides with the release of a study by the World Wildlife Fund and Conservation Biology Institute alleging “that the levels of forest protection across the U.S. are far too low to maintain many animal and plant species that are at risk of extinction.”

Currently, over 34 million of the National Forest’s 192 million acres (18 percent) are roadless and therefore off-limits to logging and mining. The President’s proposal would more than double that acreage, taking two-thirds of the remaining roadless areas of National Forests.

Typically, inventoried roadless areas are undeveloped, exceed 5,000 acres, and were identified during the Roadless Area Review and Evaluation process in the late 1970s. However, the Forest Service admits it will now examine roadless areas of less than 5,000 acres for possible designation.

According to the Forest Service, the President’s plan will require the Forest Service to conduct an environmental impact statement on the inventoried roadless acreage. Unlike the President’s executive order establishing the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in Utah, which caused a backlash among local residents, this plan will include a public review and comment process. The agency is expected to prepare final rules by late fall 2000.

The President’s announcement comes at a time when National Forest timber harvest is down about 78 percent from its high in the 1980s, according to the Northwest Forestry Association. “We are convinced that they want [the timber industry] out of the National Forests,” Michael Klein, spokesman for the American Forest and Paper Association (AFPA), told the Washington Times. “If these policies continue, jobs will be lost and much of the market will move overseas.”

According to AFPA, America’s forest and paper industry employs over 1.5 million people and ranks among the top ten manufacturing employers in 46 states.

Senator Rod Grams (R-Minnesota) points out, “trees are growing 600 percent faster in National Forests than are being removed from those forests through harvesting. Clearly our nation’s forests are capable of sustaining a science-based forest management program that protects both the environment and the important jobs and economic activity of forested areas.”

W. Henson Moore, president of the American Forest and Paper Association, told the New York Times, “The main reason roads are built is to keep the forest healthy, to get out dead and dying trees that can build a fuel load and cause a catastrophic fire, which happened on five million acres in the past year alone.”

Many worry the President’s order will be carried out without Congressional oversight. Radanovich noted, “[Interior] Secretary Babbitt said this year they will no longer try to do anything legislatively. They will do everything through regulation.”

According to Representative Helen Chenoweth-Hage (R-Idaho), chairman of the House Resources Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health, “most troubling with the proposal is the Administration’s willingness to exclude local communities from the process. In some areas, roadless areas have been officially reviewed five times, costing taxpayers millions of dollars, but since none of these resulted in a complete lock-up of all areas, as advocated by some national environmental groups, they have been able once again to initiate yet another review.”