Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today renewed for another year a policy giving himself sole power to approve logging or road projects on tens of millions of forested acres while the Obama administration decides how to handle the controversial Clinton-era roadless rule.
One year ago, Vilsack signed a directive saying no projects would proceed without his personal approval on nearly all of the areas covered by the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule. It included the option he invoked today to renew the interim policy for an additional year.
"While the courts continue to wrestle with roadless policy, I will continue to work with the USDA Forest Service to ensure we protect roadless areas on our National Forests," Vilsack said in a statement. "Renewing this interim directive reflects President Obama's commitment to protecting our forests by ensuring that all projects in roadless areas receive a higher level of scrutiny."
The 2001 rule 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.
The department said that because various courts are divided on the legality of the 2001 rule, the directive will ensure "a consistent national review of all proposed projects." Last summer, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the 2001 rule, but a separate appeal is under way in the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where a decision could come any day.
The revised interim directive, which will last one year, covers roadless areas in Alaska but will not apply to those in Idaho, which wrote its own roadless area plan.
It does not require secretarial approval for activities such as emergency firefighting activities or for small diameter timber cutting to improve endangered species habitat and to reduce risk of catastrophic wildlfire. Those activities were also exempted under the previous interim directive and are consistent with the 2001 roadless rule, the department said.
The revised directive also does not require secretarial approval for projects related to mining but instead instructs Harris Sherman, the Agriculture undersecretary for natural resources and environment, to work with the Forest Service to minimize the effects from such activities. Mining projects are required to proceed by law, the department said.
The 1872 law governing hardrock mining gives a "congressionally granted right of reasonable access," which includes the construction of roads reasonable and necessary for exploration and development. The Obama administration has called for Congress to modernize the law.
Jane Danowitz, director of Pew Environment Group's U.S. public lands program, called the renewal of the directive "good news."
"Today's announcement is a welcome reaffirmation of a national policy that helps protect America's most pristine forests," Danowitz said. "It also reflects the reality that the 1872 Mining Law leaves roadless forests and Western water sources threatened by gold, uranium and other mining operations. Reform of the mining law is long overdue, and the Obama administration and Congress should make it a high priority."
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).
In the past year, Vilsack approved 21 projects in roadless areas. The projects allowed forest restoration activities near towns, moving a trailhead and campground location, mine cleanup, and drilling methane wells for a pre-existing coal mine, the department said.
Fourteen of those projects allowing road construction in roadless areas were approved earlier this month, a dozen of which were granted under the mining law (Greenwire, May 13).
The 10th Circuit heard arguments in March on one roadless rule case. Environmental groups and the Obama administration appealed to the court last summer after U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer of Wyoming issued an opinion throwing out the roadless rule. Brimmer said that the roadless rule was driven through the administrative process for the political capital of the Clinton administration without taking the "hard look" required by the National Environmental Policy Act and issued a permanent injunction against it (Greenwire, Aug. 13, 2008).
Last August, the 9th Circuit affirmed a lower court's ruling to reinstate the Clinton-era roadless rule, saying it is necessary to protect the vast majority of the country's undeveloped forest areas. The court ruled that an alternative policy put in place by the George W. Bush administration in 2005 allowing states to petition for their own roadless protections violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act (E&ENews PM, Aug. 5, 2009).
Brimmer first threw out the roadless rule in 2003, California Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Laporte reinstated it in 2006, and Brimmer tossed it again in 2008.
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