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Giant Steps Needed To Permanently Protect Roadless Areas

On May 28, 2009, the Obama administration took a good first step towards protecting our national forests from logging and road building, but President Obama will need seven-league boots to complete the job -- and make good on his pledge to protect roadless areas.

The administration imposed a year-long freeze on road building and logging on roadless areas of the national forests, as urged by the conservation community. At least temporarily, this "time-out" reverses eight years of Bush-era efforts to throw open the forests for plunder and profit.

Under the new policy, the Forest Service will spend the next year or so reviewing forest policy and the Roadless Area Conservation rule put in place by President Clinton in 2001. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who oversees the Forest Service, will review all plans for roadbuilding, logging, or other development.

The immediate and most significant effect is to potentially put a hold on roadless timber sales that have been scheduled in Alaska's Tongass National Forest, the biggest, wildest, most important of the national forests. Opening the Tongass for commercial exploitation is one of the few victories Bush scored, despite vigorous attacks on the entire Roadless Rule.

But, while the Obama action grants interim protections to the Tongass, it excludes the entire state of Idaho and does nothing to stop the expansion of the Smoky Canyon Mine into roadless areas of Idaho's Caribou-Targhee National Forest. Moreover, there is no guarantee of permanent protection for any of the national forests. President Obama, so far, has only committed to reviewing the 2001 Rule.

What's at stake at the end of the review period are the last remaining strongholds for grizzly bears, wolves, elk, salmon, and trout. The forests protected by the 2001 rule provide vital habitat for 1,500 wildlife species, safeguard drinking water supplies for 60 million Americans, and ensure quality recreation for millions of hikers, fishermen, and hunters.

Earthjustice, like other conservation groups, will push hard to make to make the "time-out" permanent. It's a fight this organization has carried for years, supported by hunters and anglers, religious leaders, scientists, backpackers, and many others. They know that roadless areas are valuable for recreation, wildlife habitat, climate adaptation, and clean water supplies for hundreds of communities.

Read the New York Times editorial on the roadless rule (June 3, 2009)