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

Roadless Rule

Air Date: Week of

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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In January, the Clinton administration announced its decision to ban building new roads in almost 60 million acres of national forests. But with the changing of the guard in Washington, the rule was put on hold - until now. The Bush administration says it is going ahead with Clinton's rules, but will also allow local officials to modify or challenge the rules depending on regional concerns. The Bush Administration's problems with the Clinton ban on roadbuilding stem from a suit brought by the timber industry and the state of Idaho. I'm joined now by Rocky Barker, environmental reporter at the Idaho Statesman, who's been covering that case. Welcome, Rocky.

BARKER: Glad to be here.

CURWOOD: Tell me, what exactly are the issues in this lawsuit in Idaho?

BARKER: At the heart of the issue is the National Environmental Policy Act, the law that requires environmental impact statements for major projects. What the state of Idaho and the timber industry are arguing is that this process carried out by the Clinton administration was too hurried. It really didn't take into account their concerns. Ironically, it's the same kind of an issue or a lawsuit that environmentalists have used in the past to stop things like timber sales and other activities that people like Idaho and the timber industry would want to take place in these roadless areas.

CURWOOD: I'm a little confused here. There were some 600 meetings. There were over a million and a half public comments recorded. And yet Idaho is saying that they didn't have a voice in this. Fill in the blanks here for me.

BARKER: Well, it's true. This really was one of the largest public involvement processes that I've covered. But westerners really felt left out. Even though they went to the meetings, they felt nobody was listening on the other side. They felt like all of these things had been taking place that were limiting the timber harvest. They were protecting endangered species. They were essentially closing mills. And they were watching their rural communities die. And they were blaming it on Clinton. So when this roadless policy came about it was kind of the last step. For the state, they argued they didn't get detailed maps for them to determine how much of their state land was going to be blocked off because they couldn't build roads across roadless areas to get to it.

CURWOOD: Now, let's talk a bit about who cares about this issue there in Idaho. Tell me about the people who are involved here.

BARKER: Well, clearly, there is the environmental movement, both nationally and locally. People who are concerned about road fragmenting. The importance of these areas for wildlife habitat, like elk and grizzly bears. And also, there are concerns about roads causing erosion and sedimentation in streams and fish habitat. Then, on the other side, you've got, really, the people who live in the small towns around the roadless areas. They're sometimes loggers, woodworkers, ranchers, and, actually, motorized vehicle users who use these areas, both for work and play, and they want access.

CURWOOD: What happens, then, if it turns out there is no roadless rule?

BARKER: There really isn't a lot that will happen. The roadless issue has been practically resolved in the west in the last five years. We aren't spending money on building new roads. Congress came within a few votes of killing the entire road budget for the Forest Service. And this is mostly about values and about -- it's almost like a religious war at this point. What really is important, it's interesting, for the timber industry, are the roaded areas. Those are the places where we have some of the most so-called forest health problems, where forests are overgrown from a century of fire suppression, and actually they would probably prefer to get the attention off of the roadless debate and over to the roaded areas.

CURWOOD: What about the politics on the Republican side here? How is this issue going to play now in the upcoming midterm elections, and further down the road when Mr. Bush is looking for re-election?

BARKER: As you said, Steve, this is a very popular decision nationally. And I think it adds to President Bush's challenges in coming off as an anti-environmental president. He's going to have to finesse it. In other words, he's going to have to show people that he's not going to just allow these roadless areas to be destroyed. And I think one of the ways that we'll see it is on wilderness bills. We may start to see more wilderness bills come out of a Republican Congress.

CURWOOD: Rocky Barker is an environmental reporter with the Idaho Statesman and author of the book "Saving All The Parts: Reconciling Economics and the Endangered Species Act." Thanks, Rocky.

BARKER: Thank you.



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