Road construction in national forests can harm fish and wildlife habitats while polluting local lakes, rivers, and streams. The Roadless Area Conservation Rule—which was made on the basis of extensive citizen input—protects 58.5 million acres of national forest from such harmful building. I will be proud to support and defend it.
—Senator Barack Obama, 2008
Both as a senator and as a candidate for the White House, President Obama was forthright in his support for the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which protects nearly 60 million acres of pristine national forest lands.
The rule was established by President Bill Clinton in 2001, but severely undercut by the Bush administration—freezing its implementation, not defending it against industry court challenges, finally effectively repealing it by making it a state-by-state option that left roadless areas vulnerable to local political pressure.
Earthjustice represented a wide swath of the environmental community in fighting off nine separate legal attacks on the rule filed by timber companies and a few states. The effort was remarkably successful, keeping the loggers and roadbuilders at bay and overturning Bush’s local option rule.
Several cases are still pending on the rule, or on site-specific projects such as proposed mines and timber sales in roadless areas. If these cases have to go through the entire process of decisions, appeals, and remands, years will go by without a resolution—or full protection of roadless areas. In addition, later this year the Forest Service plans to offer several timber sales in roadless areas of Alaska’s magnificent Tongass National Forest.
That’s why Earthjustice and our allies are calling on Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who oversees the Forest Service, to order an immediate time out on any projects in roadless areas pending the return of protection to all 60 million acres. The Forest Service should end the temporary exemption of the roadless rule in the Tongass, and should also stop the expansion of the Smoky Canyon Mine into roadless areas of Idaho’s Caribou-Targhee National Forest. Secretary Vilsack must tell the Justice Department to drop the legal arguments carried over from the Bush administration and inform the courts that this administration supports the roadless rule.
We are aware that the administration has its hands full—the economy, climate and energy, health care, two wars—but this is a no-brainer. The rule exists. Hundreds of hearings have already been held, millions of comments gathered, and Americans support roadless protection by a margin of 10 to 1. Supporters include hunters and anglers, religious leaders, scientists, backpackers and many more.
Those who oppose the rule hope to profit from exploitation of these public resources for logging, mining, and other extractive activities. But roadless areas are extraordinarily valuable just as they are—for recreation, wildlife habitat, climate adaptation, and clean water supplies for hundreds of communities. The only way to put an end to the use of the roadless rule as a political football is by returning protections to all 60 million acres.