Will roadless national forests soon be paved and logged?

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/file
A foggy day: Tongass National Forest, the largest temperate rain forest in the world and home to more than 300 species of birds, is at risk from proposed logging, environmental groups say.

Is the US government going to soon allow 90,000 acres of currently undeveloped national forest to be paved with roads and then logged? That's what the environmental advocacy group Environment America charges.

Here's some background on the issue:

In early 2001, the Roadless Area Conservation Rule became law. Its purpose was to prohibit "road construction, road reconstruction, and timber harvesting in inventoried roadless areas on National Forest System lands [58.5 million acres]."

There were several court challenges to this, and in 2005, the Forest Service instituted a state petitioning process, which conservation groups considered a weakening of the protections in the 2001 regulation. (Timber, drilling, and mining interests, for instance, could have great influence on a state level to impact forests adversely.) The rule-changing and court battles left the national forests vulnerable, say environmental groups.

Forests may fall under the ax beginning this spring

Although only seven miles of roads have been built in roadless areas since the 2001 law took effect, many logging projects have slowly been moving forward. And some commercial logging of previously undeveloped forests in Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, and Oregon could start this spring, says "Quietly Paving Paradise," a report just released by Environment America.

Some examples in the report:

-- A timber sale is threatening 1,515 acres of the Umpqua National Forest in Oregon, which includes part of the Oregon Cascades recreation area.

-- In Idaho, 405,900 acres of forest could see road construction to provide access for phosphate mining. In addition, the report says, "five million acres of roadless forests across the state have weakened protections to accommodate logging."

-- In Colorado, the state "is on its way to finalizing its own state specific roadless rule," the report says. "This rulemaking has reduced protections in roadless forests that are of interest to coal and oil and gas companies. Currently included in the proposed rule are exemptions for future coal mining at Priest Mountain and oil and gas leases in the Clear Fork Divide Roadless Area."

(You can read more about roadless areas in your state -- and potential threats to them -- here.)

To counter these threats, last month 25 US senators and 121 members of the House of Representatives signed a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack asking him to grant an immediate "time out" on development projects in roadless areas across the country.

Groups such as Environment America and the Heritage Forests Campaign concur in the call asking Secretary Vilsack to issue an administrative halt to these potentially destructive projects. "After all, with forests you don't get a second chance," Ms. Gentile says. "Once they're gone, they're gone forever."

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