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House Bill Would Protect 13 Million Acres in Northwest

by Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin - June 7, 2002

Roadless watersheds and other national forest land totaling 13 million acres in the Northwest would receive permanent protection under a bill introduced in the House this week.

The measure would put into law controversial roadless area protection regulations adopted by the Forest Service during the Clinton administration. Bush administration officials are in the process of revising the initiative, and a federal judge in Idaho has ruled the Forest Service violated certain administrative procedures; an appeal is pending.

The two-paragraph bill would put into law the Roadless Area Conservation Rule adopted in November 2000 and the agency's inventory of areas totaling 58.5 million acres, which include some of the nation's best remaining trout and salmon habitat, according to Trout Unlimited.

Co-authors Jay Inslee, D-Wash., and Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., along with David Wu, D-Ore., and others unveiled the proposal at a press conference on Wednesday. It has 173 sponsors and is backed by environmental and conservation groups.

Other Northwest sponsors are Reps. Jim McDermott, Adam Smith and Rick Larsen, all D-Wash., and Earl Blumenauer and Peter DeFazio, both D-Ore.

The largest amount of roadless Forest Service land not already protected by Congress as wilderness is 14.8 million acres in Alaska, followed by 9.3 million acres in Idaho. Washington has just over 2 million acres, Oregon, just under 2 million, and California, about 4.4 million.

Steve Moyer, Trout Unlimited vice president of conservation programs, said the organization will work for the bill's enactment because of importance of roadless areas to coldwater fisheries. In the seven-state interior Columbia Basin, 60 percent of the best remaining trout and salmon habitat is in areas that are roadless or have few roads; 85 percent of the healthiest populations of Western cutthroat trout occur in wilderness and roadless areas, Moyer said.

Survival of many of the country's most at-risk species depends on roadless areas, which make up only 2 percent of the land base, he said. About a quarter of all species listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act are likely to have habitat within roadless areas.

Trout Unlimited also supports the legislation because it would enable the Forest Service to improve maintenance on its existing 386,000-mile forest road system, Chris Wood, the group's director of public lands and watershed programs and a former Forest Service official, said. Many poorly maintained roads are harmful to trout and salmon habitat, he said.

Inslee claimed strong public support for the bill, which he said "takes care of existing roads and protects the remaining jewels of our national forests from mining, drilling and clear-cutting. By protecting our remaining roadless areas, we will ensure that pristine forests continue to provide sources of clean public drinking water, an undisturbed habitat for fish and wildlife, and thousands of acres for the many forms of recreation we now enjoy."

Republican congressional leaders and many Western Republicans fought against the Clinton proposal. Inslee's bill is unlikely to move in the GOP controlled House but Democrats could try to attach it to a must-pass spending bill and force a vote in the House or Senate this summer.

The House Western Caucus opposed the bill. Chairman Richard W. Pombo, R Calif., and 44 other members called on Bush to oppose efforts to codify or administratively implement the Roadless Area Conservation Rule. "This case needs to be carefully considered in the courts, and appropriate steps must be taken to ensure that procedural and environmental laws are respected. Any attempt to codify the legally enjoined rule would be tantamount to a congressional end-run of landmark environmental laws like NEPA," the June 5 letter to Bush said.

"The last thing states like Idaho need is a one-size fits all roadless policy," caucus member Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, said. "I trust President Bush will take a long, hard look at how the roadless rule affects rural communities. It is clearly in violation of NEPA and should not be implemented."

Environmentalists contend the administration is intent on gradually gutting protection. "Despite broad support and a record amount of public input, the Bush administration is working to weaken the rule with loopholes and exemptions," Natural Resources Defense Council President John Adams said.

The roadless areas would be off limits to most road-building and logging. New roads could be constructed only in specified circumstances, such as to fight fires or when other natural disasters threaten public safety. Existing roads, trails and other recreational access would not be closed, Inslee said.

He said the bill would not affect the right of access to private or state land and allows logging of certain timber stands to reduce the risk of wildfires; oil and gas drilling could continue and expand only within existing or renewed leased areas.

House Bill Would Protect 13 Million Acres in Northwest
Columbia Basin Bulletin, June 7, 2002

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