Roadless rule change could affect Tongass

It's no ban, but environmentalists hope it will turn out that way

Posted: Friday, May 29, 2009

Environmentalists are hoping Thursday's Obama administration announcement will mean a time-out for road-building for timber sales in roadless parts of the Tongass National Forest, and many news outlets reported it as such.

"This directive probably has more immediate impact on the Tongass than any other national forest," said Tom Waldo of Earthjustice, an environmental legal firm that has fought to keep roadless areas that way.

But the Forest Service itself says the opposite.

"We don't see this as having any real impact, other than adding an additional step in the process," said Tongass spokesman Phil Sammon.

"It's more of a procedural directive," said USDA spokeswoman Chris Mather. "It doesn't mean (Obama is) going to say no to everything, or that he has said no to anything."

The Obama administration won't weigh in on the Clinton-era Roadless Area Conservation Rule until next year. In the meantime, the Agriculture Secretary must personally review any timber sale proposals that include road-building in currently roadless areas of national forests.

President Obama supported the roadless rule in his campaign. In 2001 it banned road-building on about 58 million acres of national forest land nationwide, but environmentalists and timber advocates have been wrestling over it in court since then. The rule currently applies in 10 Western states.

The directive applies to just four of 24 sales Tongass officials have scheduled for the next year. But these add up to 77 million board feet, about three-quarters of the 102 million board-feet scheduled. The four sales include about 35 miles of road-building.

The Forest Service is paying for the roads. Waldo argues the Forest Service is in every case spending more money on them than the timber sales are worth.

The four sales in question could be reconfigured in three cases so they don't include roadless areas, Waldo added.

"Roadless areas are the heart and soul of the Tongass," he said.

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