What's nine times the size of the interstate highway system, damages forests, and costs you money? Answer: the network of roads running though our national forests.
Why do we need 440,000 miles of roads in these forests? The majority of the roads were built to enable large logging trucks to get from main roads to portions of the forest where trees are cut. As more acres were logged, roads had to be carved into increasingly remote and mountainous areas. That costs money - and American taxpayers pick up the tab. In 1996, for example, the high cost of roads was a key factor in the $204 million that taxpayers lost on commercial sales in the national forests.
That's bad enough. What concerns the Wilderness Society even more is the high environmental cost, especially in places where there weren't roads before. In a recent letter to President Clinton, 169 of the most knowledgeable scientists in biology, ecology, and related fields wrote: "Streams flowing out of roadless areas typically provide supplies of the purest water, untainted by chemical pollutants and within the cool temperature range required by many native fish species. The ecological risks associated with developing these areas are extremely high." It's clear that roadbuilding is the most environmentally destructive activity in our national forest.
These roads and the logging they facilitate take a heavy scenic toll, as well. Hiking, camping, and other outdoor pursuits lose much of their allure when the logging trucks have gotten there first.
For years, the US Forest Service acted as the No. 1 cheerleader for this activity. Many careers were built on high timber volume. But now there are signs this 30,000-employee behemoth is waking up to some environmental realities. The agency recently proposed an 18-month moratorium on building roads into roadless areas. While we had hoped it would apply to all forests, and not carve out a number of exemptions, the proposed moratorium does represent a step in the right direction.
That's not sitting well with the timber industry. We are preparing for a fight from its friends in Congress, who are likely to try to block the moratorium. As Common Cause documented, the industry has invested heavily in certain legislators and lobbyists to see that its access to forests is not lessened.
For many Americans, the national forests are 156 of the country's best-kept secrets. Almost all of us know of Yellowstone National Park, but how many are aware of the Briger-Teton National Forest, which runs along Yellowstone's southern edge? Located in 41 states and Puerto Rico, these forests provide 55 percent of the Western states' drinking water. When roadbuilding dumps dirt into a forest's streams, taxpayers who live downstream have to pay to clean the water before they can use it. Also, the national forests provide habitat for 3,000 species of fish and wildlife species and 10,000 plant species, including nearly 300 that are endangered.
Our national forests' economic value to local communities increasingly reflects the growth of recreation and tourism. Nationwide, they receive three times the number of visits our parks do, and this recreation contributes $97.8 billion a year to the US economy. With population projected to increase by 50 percent over the next 50 years, demand for the high-quality outdoor recreation provided by these places will increase markedly. In contrast, these forests provide just 4 percent of the US wood fiber supply. Any reduction in logging will have no significant impact on the availability or price of lumber and paper. In other words, the trees in our national forests are worth much more when they are vertical than when they are horizontal.
Americans believe roadless land deserves protection. A recent poll of 1,000 voters found that two-thirds opposed development in "roadless wild forest areas over 1,000 acres." Majorities held this view in all regions and in both parties.
Theodore Roosevelt once said, "The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired in value." True. Each of us inherited the national forests, and we are shortchanging our great-grandchildren if we allow this land to be carved up. It's time to turn the bulldozers around.
* William H. Meadows is president of the Wilderness Society.