The roller-coaster process for designating US "roadless" areas is careening into another newsworthy stretch. A handful of the 39 states involved have already indicated their preference for which lands they would like to retain as roadless, and the inclinations of the other states will become apparent over the next few months.
After decades of debate, it appeared in 2001 that the highly contentious issue had been resolved, as the Clinton administration published its final rule in the Federal Register just a few weeks before leaving office. The 58.5 million acres designated roadless, covering about one-third of all US National Forests, would have continued to support existing uses and facilities, but no new roads would have been allowed.
However, the Bush administration suspended the rule (and all other Clinton rules that had not yet gone into effect) immediately upon taking office, and finally decided to address the controversy by issuing its "State Petitions for Inventoried Roadless Area Management Rule" on May 13, 2005.
In this rule, the administration set up a process by which each of the states may petition the Secretary of the US Department of Agriculture to indicate its preference for how to proceed. The Secretary can then accept, reject, or modify each request, as he sees fit, then develop a final plan for each state (with no specific timing required).
USDA has already accepted petitions from the governors of VA, NC, and SC asking that roadless areas remain unchanged from those in the Clinton-era plan. Similar petitions have recently been filed by the governors of NM (May 31, 2006) and CA (July 12, 2006).
One of the next states expected to file a petition is ID. Its request is likely to vary significantly from the Clinton-era designations, says the Wilderness Society's Mike Anderson (206-624-6430 x227). Anderson expects that about a dozen or so additional states may file a petition by the Nov. 13, 2006, deadline.
The states participating in the petition process have selected various methods to determine their official position. CO has used an extensive public hearing process that is expected to wind down in mid-September 2006. OR is using a limited public hearing process that will begin in August 2006. A few governors are reportedly just talking with selected county commissioners before making a decision.
In states that don't file a petition, pertinent forest land use plans will become the guiding document for roadless areas. With that in mind, CA Gov. Schwarzenegger's petition was accompanied by an appeal of four southern California forest plans.
All these petition and appeal efforts assume that the suits challenging the Bush administration's repeal of the Clinton-era plan don't succeed. The next hints of whether this approach will have much traction likely will come at an Aug. 1, 2006, court session in San Francisco, during which a coalition of six states and 20 organizations will make their oral arguments (contact Anderson for details).
Among the opponents of such suits are a coalition of groups that includes the BlueRibbon Coalition.
While all these procedural moves are under way, USDA has said that, in general, it will manage potential roadless areas to preserve their character. However, the agency has left itself numerous loopholes for exceptions, allowing a number of logging, mining, and other projects to proceed (text of USFS Interim Directive).
The Heritage Forests Campaign has highlighted some of these projects, in AK, CO, ID, MN, NH, OR, UT, and WY, here and here.
Many of the environmental groups involved with roadless areas are mentioned on the Heritage Forests Campaign press release about California's petition.
Among the groups that historically have had major concerns about the Clinton-era version of roadless areas are the American Forest Resource Council and the American Forest and Paper Association.
Many other forest-related resources are available through the National Association of State Foresters.
For a lengthy chronology of the roller-coaster roadless area ride since 2001, see the Wilderness Society's version.
For more information, see TipSheets of June 25, 2003, and Aug. 29, 2001.