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The Planet

by Johanna Congleton

Tell USFS: Retire, Restore Roads

For years, the U.S. Forest Service was America's largest roadbuilding agency. Each year it carved thousands of miles of new roads while gradually accruing an $8.4 billion maintenance and reconstruction backlog.

"If the Forest Service wanted to sell trees from a national forest, then it plowed road after road. That was how lousy the old standard was," said Sean Cosgrove, the Club's forest policy specialist.

But that routine could change with a new management plan for the 440,000 miles of roads that scar America's national forests. In March, the Forest Service unveiled a new proposal for maintaining, building and decommissioning - or getting rid of - roads on national forest lands.

Many of the 380,000 miles of its authorized roads - not to mention the 60,000 miles of illegal roads carved by the timber industry and off-road vehicles - are causing landslides, damaging streams and destroying fish and wildlife habitat. Poor road maintenance also causes significant erosion in watersheds that provide drinking water to millions of Americans.

Last February, the Forest Service temporarily suspended road construction in all national forests in recognition of its growing road-management problems.

Hopefully, the new road management plan will establish a scientific, instead of arbitrary, framework for determining which roads should be maintained or retired, and where new ones, if any, should be built," said Cosgrove. "And the Forest Service will really have to prove its case if it wants to build a new road. It will need more justification than just timber extraction."

Club activists are particularly concerned about illegal roads created when ORVs repeatedly plow through streams, meadows and forested areas. They also turn hiking and horseback trails into rutted, muddy messes. According to the Forest Service, an estimated 1.7 million ORVs travel forest roads daily. Club activists believe ORV use in national forests should be curtailed in sensitive wildlife areas and on trails that are not designated for such use.

Advocates for motorized recreation claim the Forest Service's proposal will deny public access to national forests.

"This just isn't so," said Bernie Zaleha, chair of the Club's Campaign to End Commercial Logging on Public Lands. "Significant amounts of the more ecologically harmful roads can be retired, and the public will still have plenty of motorized access."

While the new policy could make it harder to build new roads in some national forests, not all will be afforded the same protection. The new policy states that Alaska's Tongass National Forest "may constitute a special situation" where "the regional forester has authority to determine that a compelling need exists in seeking to meet market demand for timber." What constitutes a "compelling need" is not defined, so roadbuilding could be left to the discretion of the regional forester.

"We are working to make sure all of our national forest land gets the same and adequate protection," said Cosgrove. "After all, you shouldn't build more roads until you can take care of the ones you've got."

Label Genetically Engineered Foods

Consumers are getting more than they bargain for when they visit the grocer. Two-thirds of processed foods on supermarket shelves contain at least one genetically engineered ingredient, yet manufacturers are not required to label these products or test their impacts on human health, such as allergic and toxic reactions.

This will change if the Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act, or H.R. 3377, introduced by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), and its Senate companion bill, S. 2080, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), pass. The bills would require mandatory labeling of foods that contain a genetically engineered ingredient.

The Food and Drug Administration claims genetically engineered foods don't require labeling because they are the same as their conventional counterparts. In Europe, where labeling is required, consumers have mostly rejected such products.

"If a bacterial toxin is genetically spliced into a plant that becomes a food product, people have a right to know that," said Laurel Hopwood, chair of the Club's Biotechnology Task Force. "Consumers and producers should be able to decide whether or not they want to use genetically engineered products for health, ecological, religious or ethical reasons."

Studies by the Rowett Research Institute have shown that feeding rats genetically engineered potatoes suppresses their immune systems. That's why Kucinich and Rep. Jack Metcalf (D-Wash.) have also introduced the Genetically Engineered Food Safety Act, or H.R. 3883. If passed, it would require pre-market safety testing on all GE foods and products to determine if they affect human health.

Companies such as Frito-Lay are already responding to public concern about the safety of genetically engineered foods. Last year, Frito-Lay told the farmers it contracts to grow 95 percent of the corn used in the company's snack foods to stop using GE seeds. Activists hope other producers follow suit.

Revised Organic Rules Better, But . . .

Is food grown in sewage sludge organic? The United States Department of Agriculture said it was when it released its first proposal for organic standards in 1998. But public outcry was so fierce the USDA went back to the drawing board.

The revised standards, released in January, do not attempt to label foods that have been grown in sewage sludge, irradiated or genetically engineered as organic, as the old proposal did. Round one to citizens.

But there are still loopholes.

First, the new standards place a heavy financial burden on organic family farms. In order for a farm to be certified as organic, the USDA must accredit someone to visit the site and ensure proper guidelines are being followed. The farmer must pay the accreditor $95 per hour - big bucks to a farmer whose income is $30,000 a year, the average for a family farmer. This fee structure gives preference to large-scale agribusiness.

Second, the proposal gets complicated when it comes to concentrated animal feeding operations. It's unlikely that any CAFO could function organically. Because animals are kept in confined and often unsanitary living conditions, antibiotics - which are not allowed under the new organic proposal - are used to control disease.

But Debbie Neustadt, member of the Club's agriculture committee, notes the proposal includes vague language that allows animal confinement, as well as other questionable practices such as cutting off chicken beaks.

"Since the term organic implies 'clean,' and CAFOs are anything but good for the environment, they should not be included in the new proposal," said Hank Graddy, chair of the Club's Confined Animal Feeding Operation and Clean Water Campaign.

The last problem revisits genetic engineering. Although the proposed standards do not include foods that have been engineered, they do not address the possibility of contamination through windborn pollen from nearby GE operations.

The USDA listened the first time. If activists make enough noise, it will listen again.

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