60 Million Acres!
Clinton Initiative Could Protect Last Wild Forests
by Jenny Coyle
The Clinton administration's newly announced plan to safeguard the
nation's remaining roadless areas could preserve more land than any proposal since the
1980 Alaska Lands Act, which protected more than a million acres of parks, refuges and
"We have a real reason to be optimistic and hopeful that this will be
one of the greatest conservation actions in American history," said Jennifer
Ferenstein, a national Sierra Club Board member and Montana forest activist.
"President Clinton is saying he has the political will to do this, and if the public
weighs in strongly, he'll move ahead with it. It provides us with an astounding
Clinton directed the U.S. Forest Service to study options to protect
roadless areas of 5,000 acres or more. The agency will also determine whether protection
is warranted for smaller roadless areas (most roadless areas east of the Mississippi are
less than 5,000 acres) and whether Alaska's Tongass National Forest should be included. If
the smaller roadless areas and the Tongass are included, the total amount of land
protected could be more than 60 million acres.
The Clinton administration has not fleshed out which activities, besides
roadbuilding, will be banned from designated lands. "We haven't narrowed the scope of
what we're looking for," said Cindy Chojnacky, public affairs officer on the Forest
Service roadless-area study team. "The purpose now is to see what people's issues
The Sierra Club is clear about what it wants.
"We need to protect our national forests from logging and other
destructive activities," said Melanie Griffin, director of the Sierra Club's Lands
Protection Program. "This means no new road construction, mining, oil and gas
development or off-road vehicle use. That's the message the Sierra Club has been conveying
all along, and apparently we're being heard. This proposal could safeguard clean drinking
water for rural communities, protect habitat for grizzly bears and other wildlife and
preserve recreational activities."
Public input on this first step is being taken until Dec. 20. Additional
opportunities to make comments will come before the study is finalized. The administration
expects a recommendation from the Forest Service in late fall 2000.
"This is a highly politicized issue being played out in an election
year," said Ferenstein, "but the process incorporates so much public input and
sound science that it will be difficult to undo - even if an anti-environmental president
lands in the White House in 2000."
Announcing his plan from the George Washington and Jefferson national
forests in Virginia on Oct. 13, Clinton said the proposal reflects the will of the
American people, who want to see more lands preserved.
"Only 5 percent of our country's timber comes from the national
forests," he said. "Less than 5 percent of the national forests' timber is now
being cut in roadless areas. We can easily adjust our federal timber program to replace 5
percent of 5 percent, but we can never replace what we might destroy if we don't protect
these 40 million acres."
The Forest Service more or less prepared for such a proposal when, in
March 1998, agency Chief Mike Dombeck announced a moratorium on roadbuilding in most
existing roadless areas. The Club mobilized national grassroots support to broaden the
moratorium, including working with other groups to gather and deliver 200,000 postcards
calling for permanent protection of these last wild forests. Forest Service staff say the
president's new proposal is right in line with Dombeck's own vision for the land.
"The leadership of the Forest Service has been advocating for quite a
while now that these issues needed to be looked into," Chris Wood, Dombeck's senior
policy advisor in Washington, D.C., told The Planet. "We've begun a public dialogue
but we haven't said we're going to protect 40 or 60 or 20 million acres. Are we supportive
of protecting part of it? Yes. Are we prejudging the outcome? No."
"This is democracy at work," Wood added. "If you care about
forests and you care about conservation and making sure that we're passing on a living and
vibrant land legacy, you'll actively engage in this process."
It's important, because timber industry lobbyists are already at work
trying to stop or weaken the plan, said the Club's Griffin. And anti-environmental members
of Congress have deemed it a "flimflam game" - as Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.)
called it at a Senate hearing - and are working to obstruct the process.
The House Resources Committee, under the chairmanship of Don Young
(R-Alaska), immediately ordered the White House and U.S. Department of Agriculture to turn
over all documents, phone records, memos, e-mails, video and audio cassettes and anything
else that has to do with the issue.
"Harassment" is how a congressional staffer, who asked to remain
anonymous, described the committee's request.
But then, said Wood, "You'd have to have your eyes closed and be
rolled up in a ball for the past 20 years if you're thinking this would not be a
Griffin said the Sierra Club will rise to the challenge. As The Planet
went to press, activists were testifying at hearings about the proposal from Atlanta, Ga.,
to Missoula, Mont., and a massive postcard campaign is under way to send a loud, clear
message to the White House.
"We expect fierce attacks from Congress and the timber industry, but
we've beaten them back before," she said. "We'll be working to build up a huge
amount of support for the president's policy in order to defend it when it's
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