Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack approved 14 projects today allowing road construction in national forest roadless areas, most of which had to be granted under the 1872 law governing hardrock mining.
Twelve of the projects -- nine in Nevada, two in Utah and one in Washington -- allow for the exploration of minerals in inventoried roadless areas and therefore are governed by the 1872 law, the department said. That law, as interpreted by courts, gives a "congressionally granted right of reasonable access," which includes the construction of roads reasonable and necessary for exploration and development. The 2001 rule did not seek to prohibit such roads.
"USDA is committed to protecting roadless areas in our National Forests because of the critical importance of these areas to our natural resources, wildlife, and outdoor recreation," Vilsack said in a statement. "While the decisions announced today allow for mineral exploration in roadless areas, not only does USDA have limited authority to approve or disapprove these activities, but these actions are consistent with the 2001 Roadless Rule."
There is general agreement that the mining law must be updated. While the chairmen of the Senate and House natural resource panels have written bills to do so and the Obama administration has pushed for a modernization, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said that will not happen this year because of the busy schedule (Greenwire, March 15).
Another project allows for drilling of 12 methane wells in an inventoried roadless area in Colorado. The wells are necessary for the health and safety of miners at the West Elk coal mine, USDA said. The mine was originally approved in 2001 before the roadless rule went into effect, the department said, and therefore has a valid pre-existing right that it can move forward in a roadless area.
The Forest Service has determined that roads are necessary to access land to construct the methane wells, the department said. All roads will be reclaimed once they are no longer needed.
In February, Vilsack said the Forest Service could begin environmental reviews of a project to allow the drilling of boreholes to create methane vents for the mine and the effects of roads needed to reach the drilling site. Environmental groups criticized the move, but the mining company said the vents were needed for safety (E&ENews PM, March 1).
Another project involves reconstruction of a campground and hiking trail in the Big Horn National Forest in Wyoming that was causing erosion and damaging fish habitat, the department said.
Last May, the Obama administration announced that it would implement a one-year delay on making any long-term decisions on the rule. In the meantime, Vilsack will have sole power to make decisions on building roads and harvesting timber on nearly all the areas covered by the 2001 rule.
The roadless rule granted blanket protection to about 58 million acres of national forests nationwide but has been mired in legal battles ever since President Clinton put it in place just before leaving office.