Editor's note: On Feb. 28, 2019, Utah filed a petition asking the U.S. Forest Service to remove federal protections against logging and development on 4 million acres of national forest land—nearly twice the amount of land that the Trump administration removed from protection last year through reductions to the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. This article was updated April 4, 2019, to reflect this development.
For nearly 20 years, the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which protects 58.5 million acres of national forests in 39 states and territories, has been a cornerstone of federal forest management. It remains one of the country’s most broadly supported environmental policies, a balanced and flexible approach that scientists and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have praised as an effective way to conserve important lands. But now the rule is under attack.
In April 2018, Alaska filed a petition with the U.S. Forest Service seeking an exemption from the rule so that new roads could be built for timber companies to ramp up logging on some of the last ancient trees in the spectacular Tongass National Forest. On Feb. 28, 2019, Utah filed a similar petition, citing the threat of wildfire to communities as a rationale for removing roadless protections—although studies show that exemptions from roadless protections would have little effect on wildfires near residential areas.
In fact, exemptions from roadless protections would have little effect on wildfires near residential areas. The roadless rule has built-in flexibility that provides for management activities designed to reduce wildfire risk. Further, data from Utah show that less than 7 percent of national forest roadless lands in Utah are at high risk of wildfire and that less than 1 percent of roadless lands in the state are at high risk of wildfire and within a half-mile of communities. But granting the exemptions sought by Alaska and Utah would threaten biodiversity, wildlife corridors, and other ecosystem services on more than 10 million acres of national forests.
When President Theodore Roosevelt created the U.S. Forest Service in 1905, he intended that forests be managed for conservation and sustainability. But over the years, our national forests were subjected to widespread industrial logging, including clearcutting of pristine and ancient stands, causing the loss of valuable wildlife habitat and degradation of clean water for downstream communities. By the 1990s, more than 380,000 miles of roads crisscrossed national forests, largely built with federal subsidies to support timber production. At that time, most of those roads were in need of major repair, adding up to an $8.4 billion maintenance backlog for the Forest Service.
In 2001, to address these fiscal and environmental concerns, the Forest Service issued the roadless rule, which limits road construction, reconstruction, and timber harvesting in undeveloped forests. The measure provides flexibility to protect public health and safety.
The roadless policy helps resolve some of the challenges facing our national forests: reducing the taxpayer burden for road maintenance; limiting the damage to watersheds and habitat caused by vehicle traffic and construction; and safeguarding mid-elevation landscapes, which are often vulnerable to development.
This policy has protected some of our country’s most iconic natural areas for nearly 20 years. Miles of the Appalachian Trail pass through roadless areas, as does the Pacific Crest Trail and many hiking areas in Utah’s High Uintas Mountains in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. More than half of the 16.8 million-acre Tongass National Forest in Alaska is protected under the roadless rule.
In addition to the benefits cited above, roadless areas in national forests are major economic drivers for rural communities, drawing hunters, anglers, hikers, mountain bikers, and others seeking the increasingly scarce solitude and quietude that these vast, undisturbed places offer. With more than half of all national forests already open to logging, roads, and other industrial operations, the roadless rule helps ensure that most of the rest of these pristine wild lands stay as they are.
Ken Rait is a project director for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. Public Lands Conservation program.