NRDC's Amy Mall discusses repeal of roadless rule, forest planning and wildfires

Will the Bush repeal of the Clinton roadless rule give a blank check to business to exploit resources? Or does it mean more local control and wise use? Is the Forest Service ready for the upcoming wildfire season? What do Bush administration policies mean for the future of U.S. forests? Amy Mall, forest policy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, joins OnPoint to discuss changes in federal forest policy, environmentalists' agenda for forests and more.


Colin Sullivan: Welcome to another edition of OnPoint. I'm Colin Sullivan. With us today is Amy Mall, forest expert at NRDC, and Dan Berman, interior reporter for E&E Daily and Greenwire. Amy thanks for being here.

Amy Mall: Thanks for having me.

Colin Sullivan: Last week the Bush administration came out with a controversial interpretation, reinterpretation of the Clinton-era roadless rule. Can you talk about why you're opposed to what the Bush administration did last week?

Amy Mall: Well, most of the roadless areas, sorry, most of the areas in our national forests have been logged and roaded and there were years of research from the Forest Service that showed that these areas really needed to be protected because they were disappearing across the landscape. The roadless rule protected them. It's only one third of our national forest, but they really needed protection and what the Bush administration has done is completely eliminated the roadless rule.

Colin Sullivan: So, part of what they're doing is that they've tried to bring states into the process and give governors a say. Why is it a bad idea to kick this process back to the states?

Amy Mall: Well, governors already can petition the Forest Service if they want and that's what this new process is, it's a petition process, but even if governors do petition the Forest Service would still retain all the decision making authority. So it doesn't really give governors any more say than they already had.

Colin Sullivan: So you think it's sort of a fig leaf? That it's not true that the states are getting more involved? It's just sort of a PR stunt? Is that what you're saying?

Amy Mall: It's not true that they'll have any more authority.

Dan Berman: Well the Clinton-era roadless rule covered 50 eight-and-a-half million acres of national forest, which as you mentioned is about a third of the forest system. What is going to happen to these acres? I mean the Forest Service says that a large portion of those lands are already protected under various management plans. What happens to the rest of the roadless areas?

Amy Mall: All the roadless areas now will be at risk of road building or logging or oil and gas drilling and even the ones that, as you mentioned, might have some protection under forest management plans are still at risk because those plans can be amended or revised. And the Forest Service we know is moving forward now with 50 timber sales in Alaska's Tongass forest, which could cut down trees up to a thousand years old. So we know that there will be plans to move forward with logging and road building in these areas.

Dan Berman: Is logging really the greatest threat to some of these roadless areas? I know the oil and gas industry has been looking at some areas in national forests that obviously, they'll need to build roads to get to the sites. Given the market for oil and especially natural gas versus the market for timber, isn't energy development the bigger threat?

Amy Mall: Energy development is also a threat. There are forests in California and in Colorado and other places where there are industry efforts to open roadless areas up to oil and gas drilling. Whether it's a larger threat, I can't say right now.

Dan Berman: All right. Is that, I mean, I guess I'm wondering, are there any specific areas in the Pacific states that you're already seeing a push to get into in roadless areas, aside from the Tongass, once the administration settled a lawsuit last, I guess in late 2003?

Amy Mall: Well, there are oil and gas drilling interests who want to go into roadless areas in Colorado and in California. There are logging projects in Oregon. There was one in California that was turned over by a court, but there are really across the country there are projects that could put these areas at risk.

Colin Sullivan: So what happens next? How do you intend to oppose, do you go to Capitol Hill? Do you try to get members to introduce legislation to stop what the Bush administration has done? Do you go to courts? What's next?

Amy Mall: There has been legislation introduced in the past that would protect these areas and we think it will be reintroduced again this session and I think the lawyers will be looking very closely at all the legal options.

Colin Sullivan: Do you know who's likely to be a champion of such legislation?

Amy Mall: In the past, the legislation was introduced on the House side by Congressman Jay Inslee from Washington and Congressman Sherry Boehlert from New York and in the Senate the effort was led by Senator Maria Cantwell and Senator John Warner and so we certainly hope that they'll still be out there trying to protect our roadless areas.

Dan Berman: I guess the problem that you run into on this issue and other issues is that the chairman of the House Resources Committee, Richard Pombo, and chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, Pete Domenici, both support the Bush roadless plan. Are the courts really going to be your best option in this case?

Amy Mall: Well, they're one option. If the rule is illegal, we want the courts to judge that. The rule was wildly popular with the American public. Americans sent in over 4 million comments regarding the roadless rule in the past and the vast majority over --

Dan Berman: That's been several rulemakings, right?

Amy Mall: Seven different comment periods and over 95 percent of the comments were supportive of roadless area protection for the entire country. So we think that legislation does have a really good chance in Congress because there's such overwhelming public support.

Dan Berman: Do you think maybe a change of administration, if, you know, it took that long, considering the Bush administration overturned the Clinton rule, do you think perhaps the next administration, in 2009, would probably be another option?

Amy Mall: I think that's a very good option, yes.

Colin Sullivan: Obviously, your best option would be to try to get President Bush out of office, from your perspective. Correct?

Amy Mall: Well, I work for a nonprofit organization so I don't get involved in electoral politics, and I can't comment on that.

Colin Sullivan: OK. Let me go into another issue that's been somewhat controversial. The Forest Service came out with a new forest planning rule just before Christmas that governs 193 million acres of our national forests. Can you talk about why you're opposed to that, to that rule?

Amy Mall: Well, that rule, that new rule replaced a previous rule and it really eliminated a lot of protections for national forests also. One of them was a wildlife protection rule that was probably the most effective way to protect wildlife in our national forests and that's just gone now. And the other part of that is the administration's effort to eliminate environmental review of national forest management plans, which means the public will not get the information that the public needs to really understand all the costs and benefits of different plants.

Colin Sullivan: Can you talk specifically about what's at stake, just for our viewer who's new to the forest planning rule?

Amy Mall: Sure.

Colin Sullivan: Why is it important?

Amy Mall: Well, forest plans are, there's one for every national forest. They are supposed to be revised every 15 years. So it's a 15 year planning document and the easiest way to think about it is like a zoning document. It maps out different areas of the forest and it gives some guidelines about what is and is not allowed in those areas. It doesn't specify what has to be done, say for example, if an area is open to logging it doesn't say, you must log X amount or this is how you will do it, but it lays out different areas where different activities are allowed and because it's for 15 years it's a very important document.

Colin Sullivan: Now just to clarify, national forests aren't the same as national parks and some critics of the environmentalists position have said their criticism of the forest planning rule has to do with they just don't want to see any logging at all in national forests. Do you think that there is room for logging in national forests as opposed to national parks or would you like to see logging restricted altogether in national forests?

Amy Mall: My organization is not opposed to all logging in national forests. There are some communities in some places where it might make sense.

Dan Berman: When we had Mark Ray on the show shortly after the planning rule was announced, we asked him about the provision that eliminated the need for environmental impact statements for the actual forest plan and his response, and I'm sure he's given elsewhere, is that since the forest plan is essentially, as you said, a zoning document you can do the environmental impact statements and environmental analyses of individual projects later on because there aren't specific timber sales or oil and gas drilling or anything listed in the forest plan you can't really do a good environmental analysis of it there. How do you respond to that?

Amy Mall: Well, the administration has eliminated environmental review of a lot of projects including some logging projects that are up to 1,000 acres, which are pretty significant. So the claim that the environmental review will be done on individual projects is really not a genuine claim.

Dan Berman: Another complaint about the forest planning rule in the Southland that comes from Western Republicans is that they just took too long. They're 15 year plans, but often, sometimes, they're taking five to seven years and this planning rule is supposed to shorten that. Are there any ways that you would have recommended that weren't adopted to shorten the time frame for planning in order to get these planning rules, the individual management plans out faster and get the work going?

Amy Mall: Well these plans are incredibly important. I can't stress that enough, the importance of whether or not we maintain wildlife populations, whether or not we allow logging in certain areas where recreation should take place. So they should take a lot of time and they should be the subject of a lot in-depth analysis. I don't know, and the Forest Service hasn't really made all this information available, how many people they have working on them, what the resources are that are devoted to the individual project plans. So I don't know how it could have been expedited. It may be possible.

Colin Sullivan: If we could move on to wildfires and Healthy Forests, the Healthy Forest Act that past out of Congress last year. A key player in forest policy on Capitol Hill, Representative Greg Walden, Republican of Oregon, says Healthy Forests is working. Do you disagree? Do you agree? Do you think he's wrong? Do you have any evidence that points that Healthy Forests is not working?

Amy Mall: We all know that the best way to protect homes from wildfire is to do some really important things right around a home site, make sure it has a fire resistant roof, make sure it has the right kind of landscaping, those kinds of things. Unfortunately, the federal government is not devoting more resources to those kinds of activities. It's budget request this year actually asked for less money to go to state and local governments for fire related activities, which is where the money typically goes to communities and the Forest Service is also continuing to do a lot of logging that sometimes is 20 or 30 miles or more away from a home and that's not going to help protect that home. So if the goal is really to protect communities, we don't see that being prioritized now.

Dan Berman: Well, not all fires start within 1,000 yards or very close to communities. For instance, in Fairbanks last year there were fires kind of in forests all around the city, it never really got into the city, but caused kind of tremendous visibility and health effects there. I mean don't you still need to go out and thin some of the other areas and their wildlife habitats out there? There's transmission lines, I mean, there are other priorities other than just communities.

Amy Mall: Well, you raise a good point, which is you don't know exactly where a fire is going to start or where a fire is going to burn and therefore, you'd have to cut down the entire forest to know that you've really got the area that you need to get because it's unpredictable. Actually, there's a lot of science out of that shows, depending on how you do a logging project, if it's far away from homes, you could actually make a fire worse. So that's why we really support emphasis on the proven research, which is let's focus around the homes. We know that can protect homes or, for example, if it was a vital piece of infrastructure like a power line then you might want to do the work right around there. But the other stuff, there's just not enough conclusive science to know how to do those projects right.

Dan Berman: Now, with Healthy Forests, the Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003 specified a limit of 20 million acres of the estimated 190 million acres at risk for wildfires. It's a relatively small percentage and why not try it? I mean is there anyway to tell whether it's working or not working?

Amy Mall: There's a lot of research going on now and there has been a lot of research for years, but as of now there is still no conclusive research about how to do logging far away from homes and really make sure that you do the right thing.

Colin Sullivan: Do you feel like your voice on Capitol Hill is a little, I mean, environmentalists appear to have lost some of their muscle on Capitol Hill. I'm wondering, as you work in forest policies specifically, do you find it difficult working with the current administration on Capitol Hill? I mean the leadership of the House Resource Committee specifically, what do you feel like your sway is with that committee, with some people in the leadership up there?

Amy Mall: I'd say right now they've been supporting the Bush administration policies and we're strongly opposed to those policies for what we think are a lot of good reasons, public support for protecting roadless areas, science for how best to protect communities from wildfires. There's a lot of good information on our side and a lot of people aren't listening to it.

Colin Sullivan: Is it more difficult than it's ever been in terms of your relationship with Capitol Hill?

Amy Mall: Well it certainly is very difficult and we'll continue to fight. I can't, I haven't worked on this issue for more than four years, so I can't really compare it to previous --

Dan Berman: Do you think that, kind of along the same lines, do you think there is a way to make it more of a nonpartisan or bipartisan issue? I know that especially during the Healthy Forest debate the Senate had a kind of bipartisan leadership put focus on this, but do you think there's a way to kind of take it out of, you know, take forest management out of partisan politics and do you think that would help?

Amy Mall: Yes. I definitely think it would help. Even during the Healthy Forest debate we saw people who were not necessarily environmentalists, fire chiefs, firefighters, people like that, community leaders, local elected officials who really want to see things change and I think that the more information that gets out and the more people learn about what can best protect their communities that will be less of a partisan issue.

Dan Berman: Do you think now that President Bush doesn't have to run for re-election again there's opportunity to kind of cross that divide?

Amy Mall: Well, I think the information will continue to get out and fires will happen again this summer, hopefully nothing bad, but the more people learn about this, I think, it will be better.

Dan Berman: Speaking of the wildfire season, earlier this year the GAO came out with a report saying the Forest Service and the Interior Department need to kind of develop a long term cohesive strategy for fighting fires and managing these areas. The administration has said they're going to get back to Congress later this year. What would you recommend in this report and, I guess, what do you expect to see?

Amy Mall: Well, we really hope that we'll see a real prioritization on community protection when it comes to fires and there's a lot of money being spent far away from people's homes and that money needs to be spent in communities.

Dan Berman: So, I mean that's really the solution is to put the money closest to communities. That's also more expensive, especially in California where, obviously because of land values and because of labor costs, it's far more expensive to do work there than it is out in Idaho or Montana or anywhere else. Is it really just going to come down to more money?

Amy Mall: Well there's a lot of money being spent that could actually be increasing fire risk. So let's not spend the money there. Let's spend it where we know it will really work.

Colin Sullivan: OK. Well we're out of time. Amy Mall, thanks for being here. I hope you come back. Dan Berman thanks for being here. Join us tomorrow for another edition of OnPoint. Until then, I'm Colin Sullivan for E&E TV.

[End of Audio]



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