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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

National Forests' Roads

Air Date: Week of

The Clinton administration has announced a proposed ban on road building across nearly one-quarter of national forest lands. USDA Under Secretary for Natural Resources and the Environment Jim Lyons and Jim Geisinger (GUY-sing-er), president of the Northwest Forestry Association, join guest host Laura Knoy (kuh-NOY)to discuss the merits of the plan.


KNOY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy, sitting in for Steve Curwood. The Clinton administration has announced its plan to ban new roads on 43 million acres in national forests. Last winter the U.S. Forest Service adopted a temporary moratorium on road construction in national forests. The new permanent ban, which excludes Alaska's enormous Tongass National Forest, has drawn criticism from environmentalists and the timber industry. Jim Geisinger of the Northwest Forestry Association joins me to discuss the plan, along with Jim Lyons. He's Undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment with the Department of Agriculture. Mr. Lyons, why did the administration decide to move ahead now with this permanent road ban in national forests?

LYONS: The public has told us that they would like to see us protect those areas in perpetuity for future generations. These areas are critical in terms of water quality for watersheds. They're important refugies for fish and wildlife species. They provide important recreation opportunities, such as backcountry use. They're also areas that have been the source of a great deal of controversy. Over the past two decades, we've worked our way through a great number of appeals and litigation and challenges to enter these roadless areas, at tremendous expense to the taxpayer. And tremendous frustration, both to the timber industry, local communities, and the Forest Service. We think it's clear that moving in this direction to ban future roadbuilding in these roadless areas will not only help to protect these critically-important environmental areas and protect the values they provide, but also be a prudent management decision.

KNOY: Mr. Geisinger, your association represents wood product manufacturers. Now, what effect would this road ban have on your industry?

GEISINGER: Well, it will be yet another incremental reduction in our access to timber from the National Forest. And here in Oregon, the federal government controls 58 percent of our forests. So, it's very significant to us. I would have to disagree with Mr. Lyons about the public sentiment, however. These roadless areas have been studied at least five times since the early 70s, and in every instance these areas have not been deemed to be suitable for the type of preservation that this proposal is considering.

KNOY: How do you respond to that, Mr. Lyons?

LYONS: This proposal is not intended to create new wilderness. We don't have the authority to do that. It is a proposal, as you said, Laura, to ban future road construction. Recreational access would continue. RV use would continue. Timbering, in fact, could continue to the extent that new roads would not be required to provide that access. We, in putting this proposal forward, sought to strike a balance, and to address one of the greatest concerns we have in the National Forest today. That is, a huge network of roads, 365,000 miles of road in the National Forest system, which unfortunately we are unable to manage today. The question was, why build any new roads into these very special areas? And obviously, we are proposing that we not do so. In fact, what we should do is better take care of the areas that are already eroded.

KNOY: Mr, Geisinger, what do you think about that? The approach of only banning roads, not banning specific activity? Does it really matter?

GEISINGER: No, it doesn't. The net effect of this proposal is very little different than if it was designated as a wilderness area. It is very difficult to manage the renewable timber resource without access to the area. Helicopter logging is feasible in some instances, but you can't fly logs very long distances before that endeavor becomes very uneconomical. And you know, the real losers in this proposal are the recreationists, because driving for pleasure is the number one-rated recreation use of our National Forest. And also, the general public that participated in good faith in the development of locally-prepared land management plans are also the losers here. This is a top-down edict that isn't balanced at all, to take one-third of our national forests, and from the top-down say we're not going to manage them as prescribed and existing land management plans that were already subject to a public input process.

KNOY: Yes. Mr. Lyons, I'd like you to address that. That's a complaint that we've heard a lot of, that this draft plan overrides the local planning process that has already drawn up plans for the various national forests in their local areas.

LYONS: Well, I'll gladly address that, but I've got to correct two things. Our proposal would only reduce planned timber harvests on the national forests by less than two percent for the next five years, so this is a real small impact on future timber sales. I think the other thing Jim mentioned was that the real impact here is on recreationists. The truth of the matter is, the impact on recreationists, particularly those who like to use motorized vehicles, is on those roaded areas where we're losing access every year because of the inability to manage the existing road system. Now, the proper way to deal with road management issues generally is going to be through that local planning process. And as I said, what we've proposed is a two-step process. We think it's important to address the roadless area issue on those larger areas that have been a bone of contention for decades through a national approach. I think it is appropriate, though, to deal with other unroaded issues, in decisions with regard to how do we manage those areas and maintain the roadless character of those unique areas, through a local planning process?

KNOY: So, Mr. Lyons, where do we go from here with this plan?

LYONS: Well, this is a proposal that we are putting out for public comment. The comment period will run through July 17th. We're going through an unprecedented effort to encourage public dialogue about the use of these roadless areas. The public has an opportunity to play an active role in deciding how this important element of the National Forest system is managed in the future, and we'll use those comments as a basis for coming up with a final proposal later this year.

KNOY: Jim Geisinger, I'm sure some of those comments will be from your organization. How will you make your objections known?

GEISINGER: Well, we'll participate in public meetings. We'll participate in the public input process. But, you know, Mr. Lyons discounts the significance of this roadless area initiative by saying it's only going to reduce timber supply by two percent. Well, the fact is this administration's already reduced timber harvesting on the National Forest by almost 80 percent, so there's not a lot of comfort in rural communities. They just say well, it's only another two percent so we shouldn't worry about it. The impact that this administration has had on rural America, particularly here in the west, has been absolutely profound. It's been incredibly insensitive, and the consequences are going to be felt for a long, long time in those communities.

KNOY: Jim Geisinger is president of the Northwest Forestry Association in Portland, Oregon. Jim Lyons is the Undersecretary for National Resources and the Environment with the Department of Agriculture. Mr. Geisinger, thanks for talking with us.

GEISINGER: Thank you.

KNOY: And Jim Lyons, thank you for talking with us.

LYONS: My pleasure.



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