A promise fulfilled on roadless forests
Oregonian editorial board
May 28, 2009
On the campaign trail in Oregon last year, Barack Obama left little doubt that he would vigorously support federal protection for millions of roadless acres in America’s national forests.
During his first five months as president, however, his administration was surprisingly silent on the subject.
In fact, lawyers in his Justice Department continued pursuing Bush-era legal challenges to a Clinton-era rule prohibiting new roads on 58.5 million acres of pristine wildlands.
Meanwhile, holdovers from Bush’s Department of Agriculture kept working to open roadless forests to logging, mining and oil and gas drilling. In Oregon, this includes a vast swath of timberland on the doorstep of Crater Lake National Park.
On Thursday, however, Obama’s secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack, declared an immediate one-year moratorium on such development on about 50 million acres of remote national forests. His directive reinstates for one year most of the Clinton administration’s roadless rule, buying time for the government to sort out conflicting court decisions on the issue and to develop a long-term roadless policy.
Oregon’s economy and rural communities need increased timber harvesting on federal lands, but not through sacrificing our last intact old-growth forests. Protecting them from road building, and therefore from commercial development, is important not just for their intrinsic scenic value but also for fish and wildlife habitat, clean drinking water and unique recreational opportunities.
The roadless rule enjoys broad support from anglers, hunters, conservation groups and Oregon’s burgeoning outdoor recreation industry. Most of the state’s congressional delegation and Gov. Ted Kulongoski wrote to Vilsack weeks ago, urging him to suspend all projects that would be inconsistent with the roadless rule while the legal challenges are resolved.
Former Gov. John Kitzhaber joined the chorus of appeals to Vilsack and added a sensible caveat. The time-out on projects in roadless forests should not apply to “activities designed solely to improve forest health.”
Thursday’s welcome order by Vilsack, whose department oversees the U.S. Forest Service, means any such forest-health projects will indeed get his review. That will include the massive D-Bug timber sale in the Umpqua National Forest near Mount Thielsen and Mount Bailey on the edge of Oregon’s only national park.
A holdover proposal from the Bush administration, D-Bug was justified by Forest Service biologists as necessary to protect the pristine timberlands from the threat of beetle infestation. Conservationists vehemently dispute the necessity and presumed effectiveness of the logging.
It’s hard to say who’s right in the dispute. That’s why Vilsack’s personal review is so urgently needed, and why the president deserves a tip of the hat for keeping his word and reinstating the federal rule protecting America’s remaining roadless forests.