Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack yesterday said he is renewing for a third year an interim policy giving himself sole power to choose which logging or road projects are exempt from roadless protections on tens of millions of national forest acres.
The policy temporarily extends the controversial Clinton administration roadless rule until the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decides its ultimate fate.
"As we await a ruling ... I will continue to work with the U.S. Forest Service to ensure we protect roadless areas on our national forests," Vilsack said in a statement. "Renewing this interim directive for a third year reflects this administration's commitment to conserve our forests by ensuring that projects in roadless areas receive a higher level of scrutiny by this department."
The Clinton 2001 rule, which barred most logging and road building on about 58 million acres of national forests and grasslands, has been the subject of conflicting court decisions. It was enjoined in 2008 by a federal district court in Wyoming, which agreed with the state that it violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Wilderness Act because it created de facto wilderness.
But the Obama administration, citing a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in 2009 upholding the rule, said it will maintain roadless protections until the 10th Circuit rules on the case, which is expected at any time.
The revised interim directive gives Vilsack discretion to approve or deny forest management or road construction proposals in inventoried roadless areas that cover nearly one-third of national forestlands.
It also is intended to ensure consistent national review and remove local pressures from Forest Service personnel to approve road-building for projects such as mine shafts, hydroelectric dams, hardrock mining or road realignments.
The policy does not require secretarial approval for emergency firefighting activities and small diameter timber cutting to improve endangered species habitat or reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire, the agency said. Such activities were exempted by previous directives and are consistent from the 2001 roadless rule.
Vilsack in the previous two years has approved 38 projects for activities including forest restoration near towns, small hydroelectric facilities in Alaska, trailhead and campground facility relocations, short access roads to state forest lands, mine cleanups, road realignments to reduce water run-off and erosion, and the drilling of methane wells for pre-existing coal mines.
Approved projects have also facilitated access to mineral deposits claimed under the 1872 General Mining Law, which bestowed ownership and development rights on thousands of prospectors.
Vilsack's directive will not apply in Idaho, where a federal district court in January upheld the nation's only state-tailored roadless plan covering more than 9 million acres of Idaho backcountry (E&ENews PM, Jan. 31).
But the policy will now apply in Alaska, where a federal district judge in Anchorage in March reinstated roadless protections that had been removed in 2003 during the George W. Bush administration (E&ENews PM, March 7).
Vilsack's decision drew applause from Joel Webster, who directs the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership's Center for Western Lands in Missoula, Mont.
"The secretary is basically serving as a gatekeeper for these projects," Webster said, adding that the roadless rule is critical to protect remote backcountry areas that are home to fish and wildlife.
"Things are kind of in limbo, and this provides some clarity," he said. "It forces the agency at the ground level to do their homework and only put forward projects that are sound."
He added that Vilsack has done a "fairly good" job of screening the projects that have come forward and that his oversight provides political cover to local forest supervisors.
Renewal of the roadless policy will maintain protections until the 10th Circuit completes its review of Wyoming District Court Judge Clarence Brimmer's decision to toss the plan.
"In its rush to give President Clinton lasting notoriety in the annals of environmentalism, the Forest Service's shortcuts and bypassing of the procedural requirements of NEPA has done lasting damage to our very laws designed to protect the environment," Brimmer wrote in 2008 (Greenwire, Aug. 13, 2008).
Brimmer's decision was praised by timber groups and the state of Wyoming, which has recently butted heads with the Forest Service over access to treat millions of acres of forests infected by the mountain pine beetle.
But if the 10th Circuit's decision conflicts with the 9th Circuit decision, it may trigger a Supreme Court review, according to a recent report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.
The report suggests a legislative solution may be needed to resolve controversy surrounding the rule. The Forest Service could also initiate a new rule, it said (Greenwire, April 21).
But environmental groups may oppose a rewrite of the rule.
"It's sound policy, it makes a lot of sense to keep that," Webster said.