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The Planet

March 1998, Volume 5, Number 2

Clinton Roadless Plan: Bold But Incomplete 

by John Byrne Barry

    "This could be one of the greatest conservation initiatives of the decade." 

    That's what Mark Lawler, chair of the Sierra Club's Forest Reform Campaign, said when U.S. Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck announced late last year that the Clinton administration would impose a moratorium on roadbuilding in roadless areas in national forests. 

    When the specifics of the interim plan, including enough loopholes and 
    exclusions to drive a fleet of logging trucks through, were announced on Jan. 22, Lawler continued to believe in the plan's potential. 

    "It all depends on how it's completed," he said. And that depends on a second wave of letters, e-mails and other exhortations from wildlands advocates to persuade the Clinton administration to close the loopholes. 

    Dombeck's proposed policy imposes an 18-month moratorium on roadbuilding in about 35 million acres of the approximately 50 to 60 million acres of unprotected roadless areas in the national forests. 

    "This reprieve provides an opportunity to gain permanent protection for all of our last remaining roadless areas," said Lawler. "But many critically important places were left out." 

    The policy covers all "inventoried" roadless areas and all roadless areas of 1,000 acres or more that are adjacent to wilderness areas, wild and scenic rivers and any other federal lands that are roadless and larger than 5,000 acres. 

    But more than 15 million acres of roadless areas (29 of 120 national forests) were excluded. Significant exemptions include the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, six national forests in the central Appalachian region and the 19 national forests in Washington, Oregon and Northern California covered by The President's Northwest Forest Plan (Option 9), the forest management compromise Clinton crafted in 1994. The moratorium also applies only to roadbuilding. It does not actually stop logging or other potentially destructive activities, nor does it halt the planning of future timber sales in roadless areas. 

    In the Pacific Northwest, said Lawler, hundreds of thousands of acres are excluded. One of the forests at risk is Washington's Gifford Pinchot National Forest, where the Limbo timber sale is already proceeding. 
    "This area is not protected under the interim plan for two reasons," said 
    Lawler. "First, it's an uninventoried area and, second, it's part of the Option 9 plan. Both were excluded in Dombeck's directive." 

    The Limbo sale allows roadbuilding in the 8,000- to 10,000-acre Paradise Roadless Area, logging of 196 acres of old-growth habitat and the destruction of an active spotted owl nesting site in one of the cutting units. The Paradise Roadless Area is within the Wind River Key Watershed, one of the last strongholds for steelhead trout in the lower Columbia River. 

    In a letter to Dombeck, 24 organizations, including the Sierra Club, called attention to the Limbo timber sale and urged him to protect that roadless area as well as "all ecologically significant areas nationwide." 

    "Roadless areas are critical to the national forests because they are the last undisturbed habitats for endangered and threatened fish and wildlife," said John Leary, forest specialist in the Club's Washington,  D.C., legislative office. 

    "Many of these forests are in steep, high-elevation terrain, where logging roads can cause the most damage in the form of mudslides, erosion and silting of streams." 

    The administration had already received more than 10,000 calls, most from Sierra Club members, in the weeks preceding the Jan. 22 announcement, urging a policy that would protect all roadless areas. 
    Day after day, callers filled Vice President Gore's voicemail until it was unable to take more messages. 

    The explicit reason for the moratorium is to give the Forest Service an 
    opportunity to study these lands for possible protection. While it takes an act of Congress to preserve an area permanently as wilderness, the president can issue a directive protecting these areas, though future presidents could overturn it. 

    "We thank the thousands of Club members who have already called to 
    influence the proposal," said Leary. "Now we have to get rid of the loopholes." 

    "We have to pressure the Forest Service to use this moratorium to secure permanent protection for the last undisturbed areas of our natural forests, not just to think up a less destructive way of building roads into them next year." 

    To take action: There are two comment periods, one will help strengthen the new temporary roadbuilding moratorium, and the other urges the Forest Service to permanently protect these last, best places. 

    1. If you can get comments to the Forest Service by Feb. 27: Tell the agency that opening a national dialogue on the value of unspoiled roadless areas is a positive step, but the interim policy falls short. It should: 

    • Apply to all national forests, no exemptions;
    • Prohibit logging and other destructive activities, as well as roadbuilding;
    • Cover all roadless areas 1,000 acres or larger  --  as recommended by many independent forest scientists.
    • Also say that the moratorium should lead to permanent protection for all national forest roadless areas 1,000 acres or larger.

    Send comments to: 
    Ecosystem Management Coordinator 
    U.S. Forest Service 
    P.O. Box 96090 
    Washington, DC 20090-6090

    2. Urge the Forest Service to permanently protect roadless areas. The 60-day comment period on the Forest Service's long-term policy on logging roads and roadless areas ends  March 30. 

    Please copy and send the coupon below, or better yet, write your own letter (by March 30), to: 
    Gerald Coghlan 
    Director of Engineering Staff 
    P.O. Box 96090, 
    Washington, DC 20090-6090. 

    For more information: Contact John Leary at (202) 675-2382; You can find the full text of the proposed plan (and send comments) on the Forest Service Web site at


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