Who's Minding the Forest?

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While the Obama administration has been consumed with problems tied to the country's economic woes, it's left our national forests largely in the hands of appointees from the previous administration. Unless the White House sends a clear signal to its agencies to change course, we could be living with the consequences for a long time.

Although the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the country's 193 million acres of national forests, is now headed by former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, he's insufficient company. About half of the agency's top posts remain unfilled, while other personnel in place, including the chief of the Forest Service, were hand-picked by the last administration.

Similar vacancies exist at the Department of Justice, where the Senate has not yet confirmed an assistant attorney general responsible for litigation on environmental issues. Still minding the store are some of the same allies of the timber industry who failed to defend - and ultimately sought to replace - the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, the popular Clinton-era policy that protects roughly 60 million acres of undeveloped national forests from road-building and other industry incursion.

The irony stings. In its eight years the Bush administration often granted priority to timber and other extractive interests. Only stiff opposition from the public kept at bay most of the requests for the new roads needed to support logging and intrusive development.

But under President Barack Obama, who pledged to protect national forest roadless areas, these unspoiled parcels face serious threats. As a senator, Obama co-sponsored legislation to codify its protections into law, while his presidential campaign endorsed it as the best way to preserve the nation's last pristine forest lands.

At least seven members of his Cabinet have agreed, including Vice President Joe Biden and Agriculture Secretary Vilsack. But in the coming weeks the Obama team must respond to a series of legal and regulatory actions, which, if not properly addressed, could put the roadless rule in jeopardy.

For example, in early July, the Justice Department must answer a complaint filed by environmentalists in Idaho challenging the Bush administration's decision to toss out the original roadless policy and replace it with a voluntary, state-by-state rulemaking. It's also going to settle on what legal argument to make before a Wyoming federal district court judge who has twice struck down the roadless rule. A separate decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals could also affect the measure's fate.

That's not all. Colorado will soon ask Washington to approve a rule developed under the Bush administration's process, which would determine what happens to the state's 4.4 million acres of roadless national forests. Unfortunately, that proposal offers nothing like the original rule's protection. Instead, it allows coal mines, methane wells and new oil and gas development in some of the state's best backcountry. The plan has been criticized by a broad array of hunting and angling, environmental and outdoor recreation groups, which have asked the Forest Service to "fix or nix" the plan.

Enlisting good men and women to lead our government takes time. Unfortunately, time is not on Obama's side if he wants to fulfill his campaign pledge to protect the country's last great stands of untouched forestlands.

A firm directive to his natural resources team to defend the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, while calling a "time out" on further activity in these areas until the dust settles in the court cases would be an important first step. Such action has been backed by a bipartisan group of nearly 150 members of Congress and endorsed by some of the country's most prominent scientists.

In its first 100 days, the Obama administration worked overtime just to deal with the multiple issues at hand, and rightly so. But when future generations look back on this era, Wall Street bailouts, CEO bonuses and Detroit automaker woes will be matters for the history books. The loss of unspoiled national forests, however, will be felt as sharply as ever.

This op-ed also appeared in other publications around the country, including the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Kansas City Star, Sacramento Bee, Salem Statesman Journal, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Stamford (CT) Advocate.