THE prime symbol of the fight over timber-cutting and wildlife preservation may not be a growling chain saw or the elusive spotted owl but a more mundane object: the bulldozer.
United States Forest Service lands now include 369,000 miles of roads, some eight times more than the federal interstate-highway system. Such roads allow loggers to reach timber-rich forests around the country, principally in the Northwest, and they also give access to hunters, campers, and other recreationalists.
But it is becoming increasingly clear to biologists, hydrologists, and other scientists that such roads are also a major cause of the decline in such endangered species as the grizzly bear, salmon, and the controversial spotted owl. And where ``indicator species'' are in trouble, these scientists say, the biodiversity of large ecosystems is threatened as well.
A panel of scientists studying forests east of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon and Washington last week cited road-building as an important element in the dramatic decline of old-growth forests there, and it recommended that no new roads be cut in areas where none now exist. Similar findings were announced last month by a group of academic and government researchers studying the Nicolet and Chequamegon national forests in Wisconsin.
In a letter to President Clinton earlier this year, 125 scientists urged a reduction in road-related sediment as part of a watershed-restoration program in the West.
The controversy over Forest Service road-building has recently involved lawsuits, budgetary tussles in Congress, and confrontations in the woods.
The Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, acting on behalf of several environmental groups, this summer sued the Forest Service to stop road-building and to have some roads closed in three national forests in Montana and Idaho - the Gallatin, the Flathead, and the Targhee.
The suits were brought under the Endangered Species Act, which prevents any activity that would harm listed plants and animals - in this case, the grizzly bear. They assert that some areas of grizzly habitat in the forests have road densities several times higher than bears can stand - one mile of road per square mile.
``What has become increasingly clear is that roads are a central part of the problem afflicting grizzly bears,'' says Louisa Willcox, project director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
``There's a significant correlation between roads and dead bears,'' she says, citing poaching and a loss of habitat, which forces less-dominant bears (females and juveniles) to become habituated to roadsides where they are more likely to be killed by man.
It's not just endangered species that are impacted by logging roads, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund asserts. ``Clear-cutting and roading have so devastated wildlife habit on the Targhee that elk, accustomed to a lingering, six-week migration from their summer to winter range under the protective cover of a forest, now must make a mad, 48-hour dash across the denuded slopes if they are to avoid predators - human and otherwise - on their trip,'' defense-fund attorneys wrote in their letter of intent to file suit.
In the Nez Perce National Forest in Idaho, meanwhile, Earth First! activists have spent the summer trying to stop Forest Service plans to scrape 145 miles of roads and clear-cut more than 6,000 acres in one of the largest roadless areas remaining in the lower 48.
Some road-building equipment has been vandalized, and more than 50 protesters have been arrested for blockading roads, climbing trees, and locking themselves to equipment.
Not only environmentalists are complaining about federal-forest road-building. In unsuccessfully attempting to cut the Forest Service budget for building new roads in roadless areas, Rep. John Porter (R) of Illinois this summer charged that logging roads ``fragment wildlife habitat and disrupt wildlife-migration routes, destroy scenic beauty, and cause extreme levels of soil erosion and stream sedimentation, ruining water quality and cold-water fish habitat.''
What's more, Congressman Porter said in an interview, Forest Service road-building at the taxpayer's expense hastens the loss of a valuable domestic resource at a time when Japan is buying up millions of raw logs shipped from the US and simply storing them for future use. ``It's not up to the government to subsidize private industry and, in effect, that's exactly what we're doing,'' he said.
Porter and other critics, including the National Taxpayers Union, say government road-building in federal forests adds to the loss of some $350 million a year in below-cost timber sales to private companies.
For their part, Forest Service officials point out that road-building by the agency has fallen markedly in recent years along with restrictions in logging due to environmental concerns. In addition, they note that more miles of forest roads now are ``obliterated'' than constructed. For example, last year some 4,000 miles were obliterated, compared with 1,180 miles of roads that were built.
Such obliteration can range from simply blocking off roads to vehicles to fuller watershed restoration. While reducing the thousands of miles of federal-forest roads may be favored by environmentalists and scientists, such roads have their defenders -
timber companies, recreationalists, and their allies in Congress, to name a few.
``We would like to obliterate far more roads than we receive money for,'' says Forest Service spokesman Pamela Finney. ``We'd like to turn a lot more back to natural habitat if we could, but Congress has put some real caps on that.''