Forget about building the road to nowhere

The Clinton administration has proposed a new policy for our public lands. The policy, to be issued sometime in the next month, would protect the remaining large roadless areas in national forests, some of the last islands of wildernesslike parcels (about 43 million acres), and save taxpayers millions of dollars. But is it good public policy to prohibit road building on these remnants of our frontier?

In the United States, about 94 percent of our total land has already been domesticated by a dense network of roads and highways. These roads connect cities, subdivisions, airports, mines, tree plantations, farms, country homes, theme parks, and recreational destinations. Even many national parks - once viewed as refuges - are internally fragmented by roads. And road creation continues at an ever-growing pace on our public lands.

It is undeniable that many roads benefit the economy. But what's the downside? Does a civilized nation need vehicular access to every remote peak, every clear stream?

Consider the effects of roads on wildlife. While roadkills are the most visible and poignant, the most significant impacts are less obvious. The negative effects of roads are particularly felt by sensitive species in the backcountry. Biologists have discovered that where there is more than three-quarters of a mile of road for every square mile of habitat, animals such as native fishes and grizzly bears are unlikely to survive. The average road density on currently logged federal forests is about two miles of road per square mile of forest.

In addition, old and abandoned logging roads make it easy for poachers to supply the black market demand for animal body parts used in traditional Chinese medicine, resulting in the illegal killing of thousands of bears and other animals. The same forest roads provide ample access to all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) that too often create new, illegal tracks through sensitive habitats like streams, wetlands, and birthing grounds for deer and elk. ATVs and other noisy off-road vehicles also spread the seeds of harmful plants.

Road building in our national forests is also costly in economic terms. Logging roads are heavily subsidized. The Forest Service's own accounting system confirms that the timber from US forests is sold at a loss because logging roads are built at government expense to encourage corporate logging. Taxpayers pay for the difference, while logging companies keep the profits.

Politicians argue in Congress that road-building projects create jobs. But do the benefits of these pork-barrel projects outweigh their high cost to taxpayers? The prohibition of all logging in the roadless areas identified in President Clinton's proposal would cut only 820 timber-related jobs in the entire US, including Alaska. And the impact on total US timber supply would be less than one-half of 1 percent.

In spite of these facts, the US Forest Service is trying to use the "jobs" ploy to convince the president to exempt the Tongass National Forest in Alaska from the proposed roadless policy. The Forest Service plans to sell 540 million board feet of timber in Tongass roadless areas in the next five years - bestowing a taxpayer subsidy of $1 billion to the logging companies. Logging industry lobbyists argue that 300 timber jobs would be lost in southeast Alaska without this excessive welfare.

The Forest Service is also trying to keep the proposed roadless lands open to logging, mining, oil and gas development, using helicopters instead of surface vehicles. This violates the spirit of the roadless proposal and would destroy the ecological, wildlife, spiritual, and recreational values of these lands for generations.

The point is this: Whether you are a conservationist worried about saving the last vestiges of wild nature, a fiscal conservative concerned about wasting taxpayer dollars, a bird-watcher or hunter disturbed by the disappearance of wild places, or an animal lover horrified by the highway carnage, the administration's "roadless area initiative" (absent the US Forest Service's amendments) is a good thing - for recreation, for nature, for our descendants, and for the future of the republic.

Dr. Michael Soule is professor emeritus of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and science director of the Wildlands Project.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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