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

Protecting Public Lands

Air Date: Week of

As the Bush administration nears the final days of its first term, we take a look at how the president has dealt with the country’s public lands. The roadless issue has dominated much of the talk surrounding federal territory, and we first talk with Reed Noss, professor of conservation biology at the University of Central Florida, about the ecological impact of roads in national forests. These areas are battlegrounds for various interests, including environmental groups, timber companies and local economies, and we turn next to Lynn Scarlett, from the Department of Interior, for the administration’s perspective on just how its roadless proposal will play out. We’ll continue the segment with a look at the national parks and the $5 billion dollar maintenance backlog that’s plagued the Park Service for several years. Bill Wade, spokesperson for the Coalition of Concerned National Park Service Retirees, tells host Steve Curwood many of these parks suffer from inadequate staffing, poor facilities, and low visitor turnout.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. As we examine the record of the Bush administration on the environment this week, we turn our attention to the debate about public lands. Part of that debate concerns the future of 58 million acres of national forest that remain largely untouched by humans. The question is whether road-building should be prohibited in these remote areas, or whether roads should be allowed to permit logging and mining

So far, the U.S. Forest Service has collected more than one million public comments on the issue – and found that 90 percent of them support the continued preservation of roadless areas. Now the Bush administration is proposing an alternative to the Roadless Rule set up during President Clinton’s last days in office. This new proposal would give individual states more control in deciding whether or not to build new roads in these wild areas.

But before we jump into the politics on this issue, Professor Reed Noss joins me to talk about the science of development in roadless areas. Professor Noss teaches conservation biology at the University of Central Florida, and he’s studied the ecological impact of road-building, particularly in the Western states where there are vast forests and strong timber interests. Reed Noss, welcome to Living on Earth.

NOSS: Thanks, nice to be here.

CURWOOD: Give me a bit of the history here of what’s happened in these national forests where roads are being contemplated, and where some would like to see no roads be built. Traditionally, what’s happened in terms of both timber use and recreational use and roads there?

NOSS: Basically, it goes back many decades. But roadless areas were identified as potential wilderness areas by the Forest Service and other federal agencies. And especially during the 1970s, the Forest Service conducted a couple roadless area reviews and evaluations where they identified potential additions to the national wilderness preservation system. Wilderness areas are Congressionally designated, okay, so they’re basically defined by their roadlessness, their remoteness, their wild, pristine qualities.

The roadless areas that are not designated, then, have many of these same qualities. And, in fact, they actually represent a broader range of ecosystems; they tend to include more areas of low- to mid-elevation, for example. And they’ve been used for primitive recreation – hiking, backpacking – in many of the same ways that the wilderness areas are. And with this change, then, or this potential change, where roadless areas would be open to more development – they could be logged, they could be used for more motorized recreation. And they could lose many of those pristine qualities that are so important not only to wildlife, but also to humans.

CURWOOD: What are the benefits of putting roads in these areas? And what are the costs, do you think?

NOSS: Well the benefits – you know, there are some local economic benefits. But I emphasize local. When, for example, the Forest Service builds a road, it’s primarily to access some natural resource. Primarily timber in the national forests, though not exclusively so. So the timber industry -- or the particular timber companies that would bid on these sales and, say, be awarded the sale – would certainly benefit. And there’d be some spin-off benefit to the local economy.

However, in general, because these roadless areas tend to be roadless for a very good reason -- they tend to be remote, difficult to get to – road building and subsequent logging in those areas actually costs more to the federal government than they get back in the timber receipts. So it’s basically a subsidized process and the taxpayers foot the bill.

CURWOOD: How much do timber companies depend on national forests as a source of the wood that they want to sell?

NOSS: Well, nationally, the national forests actually provide very little of the wood harvested in the United States. Most of the production of wood right now are in places like Georgia and northern Florida and Alabama and Mississippi -- where you can grow trees much faster than you can in these western lands, because of the warmer climate, basically, and faster-growing species of trees. And most of that is private land.

But, of course, in certain western states there are mill towns that are dependent on wood from federal lands, especially Forest Service lands. So this is really a tremendously variable issue here. But nationwide, timber derived from federal lands is almost trivial.

CURWOOD: What are the principle benefits of having these roadless areas?

NOSS: Well, I think roadless areas – they really provide something to the science of forestry, and the science of land management, that is critical. Scientists would shudder to think of doing an experiment without a control area. You know, a picture of how healthy land can maintain itself without the help of humans. We’re doing lots of really cool experiments out there with forestry in terms of how to do forestry more gently; how to leave trees, and downed logs, and standing dead trees or snags, and try to better emulate or mimic natural disturbances. But without these roadless areas, these truly wild areas, as references, how are we going to know if we’re succeeding?

CURWOOD: Reed Noss is a professor of conservation biology at the University of Central Florida. Thanks for taking this time with me today.

NOSS: Thanks very much Steve.

CURWOOD: To look at how the Bush administration plans to implement its roadless proposal, and talk about the condition of other public lands, including national parks, we’re joined by Lynn Scarlett, Assistant Secretary for the Department of Interior. Lynn, welcome.

SCARLETT: Happy to be with you, Steve.

CURWOOD: Now, in the few days before President Clinton left office he signed off on something called the Roadless Rule, which would prohibit road building in remote areas of national forests. This would limit logging, obviously, if there are not roads to pull the logs out on. Now, what was the thinking that led to this decision, do you think?

SCARLETT: Well, of course, I can’t speak to the previous administration and their thinking but, clearly, they set forth that rule. They did so in the very waning days -- in fact, it was January, I believe, 2001, just days before this administration came on board.

We found ourselves in a challenging situation, because that rule was almost immediately challenged by a number of states. We found ourselves amidst a lot of litigation. And, indeed, in 2003 the courts basically told us, “You’ve got to go back to the drawing board. That rule violates several statutory authorities.”

So we’ve had to reexamine the issue and figure out where to go -- leading to a recent decision this year on an interim rule -- and then work to create a final rule. One in which we would cooperate with states to figure out just exactly what areas should be roadless, and what areas should still have access for citizenry and other public purposes.

CURWOOD: That’s right, because there’s a concern I hear from the environmental lobbyists -- that they think that if there’s state control, governors will be more responsive to local industry interests, with perhaps less concern for the national conservation goals.

SCARLETT: Well, I think we have a very good balance here. First of all, let me suggest there may be some states indeed that want a more aggressive and more stringent roadless rule than other states. But secondly, we do have, of course, the federal agencies involved. And as the ultimate decision-makers, and working with a panel of experts who will be reviewing such things as environmental values, access to private lands, and other considerations that are important in this balancing act.

CURWOOD: Let me ask you specifically about a national forest, and that’s the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. It’s our largest. And both the Clinton administration and your administration so far have not really included the Tongass in the Roadless Rules. Yet environmentalists say this is some of the most sensitive and important forestry territory on the planet. How do you see your administration moving forward now with the Tongass, and the extent of logging you’ll permit there?

SCARLETT: I will say that the Tongass is a very, very large forest and it is very conceivable that one can have in the Tongass access to some of those timber resources and, at the same time, to have very significant areas of wilderness and environmentally-sensitive and environmentally-protected areas. We in the Department of the Interior manage a significant portion of Alaska through the Bureau of Land Management. And while some of those lands are open to development, there are still millions of acres that in fact are very, very remote and represent some of the best wild places on this planet.

CURWOOD: I want to turn now to national parks which, of course, are also a part of the federal land collection. What’s your take on the condition of these parks today? And what do they have in the way of financial resources?

SCARLETT: The National Park Service manages some 388 units. And those units range from the two million acres of Yellowstone to individual historic houses like Frederick Douglass’ home. The operating budget for that park system in 2005 will be $1.8 billion – that’s billion with a “b.” By our reckoning that is the most operating funds that the Park Service has had ever, and in fact the most dollars per acre, per visitor, or per employee in the Park’s history. It was estimated that there were some -- well, thousands – of projects and some $4.9 billion in maintenance backlog in the parks. And this president, through his Park’s Legacy Project, committed, by golly, to doing something about that.

CURWOOD: What led to the present situation? How did it happen that all this maintenance was deferred?

SCARLETT: Well, it’s a very cumulative process, and it has occurred kind of in a creeping fashion over many, many decades. The Park Service gets their budget from Congress and, oftentimes, it’s tempting to spend the money on the things that visitors immediately see. For example, putting up signage or putting up new visitor centers; investing in interpreters who walk people around parks and explain the history and the culture and the natural resources.

And if times are tight, it’s often sometimes tempting to set aside those things that are invisible, like that unglamorous wastewater treatment facility or that unglamorous electric utility system, and say, gee, I hope for a better day next year. And so, cumulatively, by the time this president came into office this backlog had gotten to be so large that the president said, “We just have to do something about this.” And that’s what he’s committed to doing, and something I think we’ll continue to focus on from now through the rest of this term.

CURWOOD: Lynn Scarlett is Assistant Secretary for Policy Management and Budget for the Department of Interior. Thanks for taking this time with me today.

SCARLETT: Very much enjoyed it.

CURWOOD: We turn now to Bill Wade, former superintendent of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. His career in the National Park Service spanned more than 30 years, and he is retired now in Tucson, Arizona. Today, he’s spokesperson for the Coalition of Concerned National Parks Service Retirees, and is working to bring attention to what he calls major problems with our national parks. Bill Wade, thanks for joining me today.

WADE: Thank you, I appreciate being here.

CURWOOD: Now I’m wondering if you can bring me up to speed on some details of the basic thing that your group is working on, and that seems to be the lack of federal funding for national parks. Map out for me, if you could please, Bill, which parks are most in need of money and why? What do they need this money for?

WADE: Well, it’s widespread. The fact is that 85 percent of the parks that have their own discrete budget started out this fiscal year, fiscal year 2004, with less money than they had in 2003. And it’s that part of the budget that they use to hire seasonal employees, that they use to buy supplies and materials. Fewer supplies and materials means that they sometimes have to defer needed maintenance, needed repairs. So simply put, things in parks are taking a downswing right now.

CURWOOD: Now the Interior Department tells us that this administration has allotted, and I’m quoting here, “more funding per acre, per employee, and per visitor than ever before into the National Park Service.”

WADE: Well, I think that it is true that Congress has given the National Park Service the largest appropriation that it’s ever had this year. But the visitation to the national park system has been declining over the last three years, there are fewer employees now than in past years, and the acreage of the national park system has grown in the last three years by only about ten thousand acres. So it’s very easy to make that statement, and it’s very, very misleading in our judgement. And particularly, the simple fact is that at the park level, there is less money now in almost every parkk. Certainly, very few of them have as much or more money now than they've had in the past.

CURWOOD: Bill, describe a particular park, a specific park that’s in disrepair, and perhaps what’s in disrepair is out of view, but obviously not out of function.

WADE: Well, let me use Shenandoah National Park as an example. Shenandoah by all accounts ranks number two or number three in terms of severity of air quality of all national parks in the system. There are days where you go up on the Skyline Drive in the summertime and you literally cannot see the valley floor on either side, and that’s three to four miles distance we’re talking about, the haze is so bad. When their air quality specialist position, a significant staff advisor on that critical issue that faces the park, when that position became vacant about eight months ago or so, the park does not have enough money to refill that position. So the superintendent now has to have somebody acting, or a collateral duty advisor for all of the air quality issues that face him in that park.

And there are more decisions and more actions, there are more things that I think are inconsistent with the mission of the National Park Service, than we’ve ever seen before. And I’m talking about things like a continued intense attempt to try to continue to allow snowmobiles in Yellowstone. I’m talking about Secretary Norton signing an agreement with the state of Colorado that gives away federal water rights on the Gunnison River as it flows through Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. So it’s all of these combination of decisions and actions in addition to the budget situation that I believe has threatened or assaulted the values and purposes of national parks more than has ever occurred in the past.

Shenandoah National Park
(Photo: Courtesy of National Park Service)

CURWOOD: Given what you’re seeing, what’s going on, that disturbs you so much, what gives you hope?

WADE: What gives us hope I think more than anything is that in truth, the resources are fairly resilient, especially the natural resources. So even though they may take a few hits right now, they’ve been known to bounce back, and if this particular trend doesn’t go too far, and if it’s overcome, they’ll be able to bounce back pretty quickly. And I guess that’s what gives us hope, and we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that that sort of thing happens.

CURWOOD: Bill Wade is the former superintendent of Shenandoah National Park, and spokesperson for the Coalition of Concerned National Park Service Retirees. Bill, thanks for taking this time with me today.

WADE: Thank you, I appreciate the opportunity to be here.

[MUSIC: Fontanelle “The Telephone Fade” FONTANELLE (Kranky – 2000)]



USDA Forest Service

Department of Interior


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