Backwoods brouhaha: Undoing the Roadless Rule

From the Mojave Desert to the Shenandoah Valley, the United States is a country defined by its open spaces–three million-plus square miles of plains, mountains, wetlands, and forests. That's a lot of territory, and ever since the Voyage of Discovery, the country's leaders have been struggling to find a way to manage it.

It's an especially sticky subject when it comes to the forests: conservationists want to preserve them, businesses want to harvest them, and politicians often just want to stay out of the way.

Five years ago, President Bill Clinton took a step in the conservation direction when he signed the Roadless Areas Conservation Rule. The rule, which went into effect in 2001, was designed to protect the country's rapidly disappearing woodlands by limiting the development of new backcountry roads in national forests. It was a controversial move at the time, particularly because Clinton signed it into law mere days before he left office. But it was heralded by conservationists for its wide-ranging impact and strict protections.

Fast forward to this July when the Bush administration, in an equally controversial move, announced plans to change the existing rule. According to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman (the National Forests are organized under the USDA because, like commercial farms, they are managed and maintained for harvest) it would be replaced with an "opt-out" arrangement that would require state governors to petition the Federal Government if they wanted to continue protecting their state's current roadless areas.

In effect, the change gives states more control over how their public forests are managed and protected. Not surprisingly, the debate has returned to a fever pitch.

Nationwide, roadless areas account for nearly 60 million acres of government-owned forest. Here in Virginia, it's even more dramatic: 420,000 acres in the Jefferson and George Washington National Forests, making the Commonwealth home to more protected land than any state east of the Mississippi River.

R. Carroll Conley with Crozet-based lumber company J. Bruce Barnes Inc., considers the Bush proposal good news for the logging industry and the state. He maintains that national forests were never intended to be preserved.

"Parks are set aside for recreation, but the national forests were set aside by our forefathers to harvest," he says. "They should be harvested like any other crop."

Conley's primary concern is that leaving these forests unmanaged and free to grow creates fire hazards. By limiting construction of new access roads, fire fighters have no way to reach many areas in case of an emergency, he claims.

"If you don't go in and manage the old growth, these forests will burn up," he says. "There's no reason we won't have the national forests for the next 200-plus years if people take care of them. But the truth is we've seen more fires in the last few years than we had in the last 200, and that should tell people something. If we don't harvest and protect them, they will burn to the ground."

In the western parts of Virginia, protecting forests means protecting a livelihood.

"I'm not a logger," Conley says, "but the families out here consider themselves environmentalists. They care about the forests, and don't want to see them harmed any more than anyone else. They want to preserve these lands for their kids."

Paul Howe, executive vice-president of the Virginia Forestry Association, agrees, supporting Conley's point that "the national forests are designed to be multiple-use in nature.

"There are already thousands of acres in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests set aside as wilderness areas," he says, emphasizing that the Roadless Rule itself has nothing to do with the timber harvest. "The harvest levels are set in the forest plan, and each goes through a long and involved planning process every 15 years."

Besides, Howe says, of the 1.8 million acres in Virginia's National Forests, only 2,000 acres are harvested per year on average. "The whole fear-mongering campaign is just laughable," he claims.

Not everyone in Virginia supports the Bush proposal. Last fall, Governor Mark Warner and a coalition of prominent citizens sent a letter to Secretary Veneman expressing their dismay with the plan and encouraging leaders to leave the Clinton rule untouched.

"This proposal is just taking part of Virginia and the national forests in the entirely wrong direction," says Cat McCue with the Southern Environmental Law Center, a regional environmental watchdog and sponsor of the Warner letter. "It turns the whole idea of national forests, public lands owned by the American people, on its head by proposing to put management in the hands of the state governors."

She also worries that, by shifting front-line control to the states, the proposal will put too much of a burden on already overtaxed state governments.

"If this proposal were to pass, it would put a huge burden on the Warner administration, adding all sorts of hoops to jump through," she says. "And ultimately, the secretary of agriculture would have the final say on what's in the state's rule, so the federal government would still hold all the cards. They say that this is about state's rights, but that's not true. It will end up putting more of a burden on the states."

For Steve Kritchbaum, conservation director with Staunton-based advocacy group Wild Virginia, the whole proposal is an effort to take that public comment out of the process.

"The original Roadless Rule was passed with enormous public support," he says. "But this latest proposal, as far as I can see, hasn't had any public comment, and that's bad news. It's out of sync with what the American people have said they want."

Conley, for one, disagrees.

"The control over these forests has been taken away from the local communities by this roadless law," he says. "There's a lot of concern that opening up the land will lead to environmental damage, but most state forest services control the logging so well these days that you don't see what I would call the 'rape of the land' any more. It's a bad law, which Bush is working to change into a good law."

Here in Virginia, things are already changing. Senator John Warner and Representative Rick Boucher recently introduced a bill that would create four new wilderness areas in the Jefferson National Forest and protect 40,000 acres. As of press time, the bill was waiting in committee until the end of Congress' summer recess.

The administration proposal is now subject to a 60-day public comment period.

"Anyone who values the national forests for solitude, recreation, clean water, and open space needs to write in to the U.S. Forest Service and voice their support for the conservation rule of 2001," McCue says. "It's really important that people educate themselves and get involved while they still can."

For specific details about the proposal, visit the U.S. Forest Service's Roadless Area Conservation website at

Information about how to comment on the proposed change is available from the Southern Environmental Law Center website,

R. Carroll Conley