WASHINGTON — No new roads or logging will be allowed in 49 million acres of national forest land for the next year unless approved by the secretary of agriculture, the Obama administration announced Thursday.
The one-year moratorium reinstates a Clinton-era rule and effectively halts new road construction and development in remote national forests. It's designed to provide "clarity and consistency" on a number of disparate court rulings while the administration develops long-term national forest-management plans, said Chris Mather, a spokeswoman for Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
"These conflicting court cases have created confusion, and we want to eliminate any inconsistency and, more importantly, ensure the decisions that are made are reflective of President Obama's commitment to protecting forests," Mather said.
No new development or timber sales will proceed in roadless national forests unless Vilsack approves them himself, Mather said. The secretary also has the authority to halt projects.
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The decision doesn't affect 9.3 million acres in Idaho, where state officials put together their own national forest-management plan for the second largest roadless expanse in the United States.
Vilsack's move will have the most immediate effect in southeast Alaska, where it's likely to slow or even halt four timber sales in the Tongass National Forest. Sales scheduled for this summer would have allowed the building of about 35 miles of logging roads to access the timber.
"The Obama administration inherited some awful environmental policy from the Bush administration. This is one of them," said Seattle lawyer Kristin Boyles of Earthjustice, the environmental organization that sued when the Bush administration repealed the Clinton-era roadless plan.
Boyles said environmentalists thought that the new approach would allow national forests to avoid what she called "classic death by a thousand cuts," development decisions that were made piecemeal by managers of each individual national forest without taking into account watersheds and ecosystems that cross state and forest-unit boundaries.
The decision also marks something of a setback for the timber industry, although Tom Partin, the president of the Portland, Ore.-based American Forest Resource Council, said it was a "responsible" approach to give Vilsack the final say.
"That's good he's doing it, the secretary saying, `I will be the responsible one.' " Partin said. "There's so much confusion out there, with courts having jurisdiction over the roadless areas."
Eventually, Partin said, the industry would like to see the national roadless plan mirror that of Idaho, where state officials have developed their own management plan for the most national forest land of any state besides Alaska. Vilsack's moratorium won't affect Idaho, where a roadless plan went into effect last year that largely bans new roads but does open 405,000 acres of roadless lands to full forest uses, including logging, road construction and phosphate mining.
"We think that's really the best way to do it. A broad view from above it isn't the proper way to do this," Partin said. "The local communities, counties and industries and other folks who use this land, they should have a say-so in how these lands are disposed of."
Idaho was the sole state to be exempted from the plan, Mather said, because officials "created a solution to the problem that is the impetus for us doing this today."
The Idaho plan, which took effect in October, modifies a proposal that the state of Idaho wrote under the guidance of then-Gov. Jim Risch in 2006. Risch, who's now a Republican U.S. senator, said he was pleased that the administration let stand the hard work of those who'd put together a roadless plan "that made sense for our state."
"It was a plan crafted by a variety of wild-land users and interest groups that built in higher levels of protection for some lands that truly deserved it, and allowed multiple use of other lands where it fit," Risch said. "This is how conflicts in public lands management should be resolved, and not by politics and a `one-size-fits-all' approach by those in Washington, D.C."
A group represented by Earthjustice has sued to overturn the Idaho plan, saying that it failed to consider the input of federal agencies on endangered species management and that the state should be part of a national management plan, not one based on arbitrary state boundaries.
The fact that Idaho wasn't included in the moratorium is a good sign that the Obama administration won't override environmental policies crafted with the involvement of a variety of community and industry stakeholders, said Jonathan Oppenheimer of the Idaho Conservation League, which along with the conservation group Trout Unlimited backed the Idaho roadless plan.
"It just reflects the broad support that was built for Idaho's roadless rules and the amount of attention that went into crafting it," Oppenheimer said.
The one-year "timeout" is a major step in protecting roadless areas, said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, who along with 120 other members of the House of Representatives asked Vilsack to review pending proposals. They feared that they'd be unable to protect some of the land from damaging activities that might be able to proceed because of the conflicting court decisions.
However, Rahall said, there's still work to be done: "These wild forests need permanent protection to continue providing clean water, wildlife habitat and boundless recreational opportunities."
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