FORESTS:

Obama admin takes first leap into roadless brawl

No logging or road project on tens of millions of forested acres will proceed without personal approval by the Agriculture Department's secretary for at least a year while the Obama administration decides how to handle a controversial Clinton-era roadless rule, officials said today.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is signing a directive giving himself sole power to make decisions for one year on building roads and harvesting timber on nearly all of the areas covered by the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule. The directive can be renewed for an additional year, the department said. It covers roadless areas in Alaska but will not apply to those in Idaho, which wrote its own roadless area plan.

"This interim directive will provide consistency and clarity that will help protect our national forests until a long-term roadless policy reflecting President Obama's commitment is developed," Vilsack said in a statement.

During the presidential campaign, Obama expressed his support for the roadless rule, which granted blanket protection to about 58 million acres of federal land nationwide but has been mired in legal battles ever since President Clinton put it in place just before leaving office.

Conflicting court decisions on the rule have made it difficult for the Forest Service "to do its job," USDA said. The directive will allow time for "relevant court cases" to proceed, the agency said.

The move drew cheers from environmental groups and Democratic lawmakers, including House Natural Resources Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), House Forests Subcommittee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.).

But House Natural Resources ranking member Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) raised some concerns about the directive. "It's unclear exactly what the policy implications of this decision will be; however, we do have concerns that they are changing a decades-long process and transferring decision-making power from scientists and career employees to political officials," said Hastings spokeswoman Jill Strait.

What comes next?

Timothy Preso, staff attorney in the Northern Rockies Office of Earthjustice, praised the move as an important signal of "a new day in forest policy." He said the most immediate effects likely will be in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, which had been exempted from the Roadless Rule and where the Forest Service had been planning some timber sales. "The Tongass is clearly going to be ground zero," he said.

Michael Francis, director of the Wilderness Society's national forest program, said today's announcement was "a good first step" for addressing the roadless issue but said more work might need to be done before coming to a decision, including integrating new information on forest management amassed since the 2001 rule was first created.

"Certainly some of the ground has changed," Francis said. "We have a decade now where global climate change is a factor in our daily lives, and we know forests are going to be an important part of that."

He said one of the first steps that should be taken is a new inventory of all the forests that would be covered by the roadless rule, noting that many of the maps that helped create the original boundaries of the 2001 rule date back to the 1970s.

Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, said he was pleased that Vilsack's announcement included an assurance that he will make the final call on roadless projects for the next year, in light of long-running litigation that has created uncertainty over whether projects can proceed in roadless areas. "It's a very responsible move on the secretary's part to make him the deciding voice on any projects," he said.

Ultimately, Partin said he would like to see a roadless policy from the Obama administration that would include elements of Idaho's roadless rule, which allows for the state to evaluate projects in its roadless areas to ensure local concerns are addressed.

While Idaho already has finished its roadless rule and thus is not covered under the secretary's directive, Colorado is still in the midst of creating its own rule for managing its more than 4 million roadless acres of national forest and therefore is covered by the directive.

Colorado Department of Natural Resources Deputy Director Mike King said that for now, the state will continue working on its rule, explaining that Colorado has long believed a state-specific rule is preferable for managing its resources. "We believe our rule does that and gives us a little flexibility to protect some of the economic drivers in Colorado," he said.

He said Colorado is getting close to completing its final recommendations on the state roadless rule. The state won't hold off on submitting them to USDA while the new directive is in place, he said, but it may wait until after USDA's new undersecretary for natural resources and environment is confirmed by the Senate.

Earlier this month, President Obama nominated Homer Lee Wilkes -- currently the Mississippi state conservationist and a 28-year veteran of USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) -- for the undersecretary position that directs the Forest Service and conservation projects at NRCS (Greenwire, May 6).

Some advocates of the Clinton-era rule believe Colorado's efforts will be dropped if the 2001 rule eventually is reinstated.

Court cases continue

Earthjustice's Preso and other environmentalists are pressing the administration to begin defending the Clinton-era rule in court.

"We'd like to see the administration's policy positions reflected in its legal position," Preso said. "As of this moment, and since they took office in January, the Justice Department has steadfastly been defending the position of the Bush administration, and that's not consistent [with Obama's stand] ... there are important things happening in the courts, and it's important for this administration to weigh in."

Currently, the Clinton-era rule applies to 10 states because of a court decision late last year. California Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Laporte limited the rule to apply to New Mexico and the nine states covered by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals while lawsuits on the issue continue through the appeals process.

Laporte made the decision after the Bush administration asked both her and U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer in Wyoming to at least temporarily lift or modify their conflicting decisions on the rule, saying the Forest Service faced a "Hobbesian choice" over which of the court orders to disobey. Brimmer threw out the roadless rule in 2003, Laporte reinstated it in 2006, and Brimmer threw it out again last year.

This article was updated at 9:40 a.m. May 29.

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