Challenges to ‘Roadless Rule’ Threaten Millions of Acres of Forest

Exemptions could open old-growth areas in Alaska and Utah to logging

Challenges to ‘Roadless Rule’ Threaten Millions of Acres of Forest
Roadless
Roadless areas, such as Wayne Wonderland in Utah’s Fishlake National Forest, represent only 2 percent of all land in the United States.
Tim Peterson

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.

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The roadless rule allows some timber cutting and hydroelectric power development in roadless areas, but disallows clearcutting, as in this section of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest.
Alan Wu

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.  

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More than 400 species of land and marine wildlife inhabit Tongass National Forest, including bald eagles, black and brown bears, wolves, moose, and Sitka black-tailed deer, like the one shown here.
Rob Bertholf

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.

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The origin of the Tongass National Forest can be traced to the establishment of the Alexander Archipelago Forest Reserve by Roosevelt in 1902. Further proclamations by Roosevelt and President Calvin Coolidge expanded the Tongass to its current size of 16.8 million acres.
Alan Wu

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.

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Backcountry forest land, such as parts of the Manti-La Sal National Forest in Utah, are a reliable source of clean water for local communities; the drinking water for 60 million Americans originates in roadless areas.
Tim Peterson

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.

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