GRANTS PASS, Ore. - The Obama administration Friday extended for another year the moratorium on most logging and mining in millions of acres of remote and rugged backcountry sections of national forests, including Southeast Alaska's Tongass.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said from Washington, D.C., he wants to continue to give decisions on projects in roadless areas a higher level of scrutiny while waiting for federal courts to resolve the legal issues.
The idea of preserving roadless areas for wildlife habitat and clean water came out of the Clinton administration. The Bush administration tried to open them up to more logging and mining by giving states control.
Conservation groups and the timber industry both welcomed the moratorium due to the continued questions over the legal standing of the policy. Once those are resolved, conservationists would like to see continued protections for roadless areas, while the timber industry wants more thinning projects to reduce wildfire danger and insect infestations.
National forests in 39 states have a total of 58.5 million acres of roadless areas that have been formally placed on an inventory. Historically, they were not logged or mined due to their remote and rugged geography. But the land became a battleground between conservation groups and the timber industry during the 1990s, when national forest logging was cut back to protect fish and wildlife such as the northern spotted owl and salmon.
The moratorium does not apply in Idaho, which developed its own roadless rule during the Bush administration. Colorado has submitted a roadless plan that has yet to be approved.
"The roadless rule stands to this day as the most significant forest conservation measure to happen in our lifetimes," said Marty Hayden, legislative director for Earthjustice. "You've got something on the order of 60 million Americans whose water literally begins in our national forests, and most of that water begins in roadless areas."
If the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholds the roadless rule, Hayden said he expected the Obama administration to stand pat with the 2001 rule.
Jane Danowitz, director of the public lands program at the Pew Environment Group, said the extension of the moratorium was good news, and pointed out the need to reform the 1872 Mining Law, a longtime goal of environmental groups.
The 2001 Roadless Rule allows some logging and road construction to reduce wildfire danger, improve forest health and wildlife habitat, and to serve pre-existing mineral leases.
Under the old moratorium, Vilsack approved 21 projects in Nevada, Utah, Washington, Colorado, Wyoming, Alaska and Oregon, including thinning to reduce the danger of wildfire, moving a trailhead and campground, drilling methane wells for an existing coal mine and cleaning up a mining operation.
There were also 12 mining projects in Nevada, Utah and Washington state that were approved under the 1872 Mining Law, which supersedes the roadless policy.
Vilsack revised a pledge to make all decisions on logging in roadless areas and sent some back to the Forest Service, including a thinning project to reduce fire danger around a lakeside resort on the Umpqua National Forest in Oregon.
Tom Partin of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group, said the moratorium was the only real option Vilsack had, given the continued legal questions. Partin said he hopes the Idaho roadless plan could serve as a template for other states to take more control of their national forests.
He added that the timber industry would like to see more projects like the D-Bug timber sale on the Umpqua National Forest in Oregon, which is intended to reduce the threat of fire in roadless areas surrounding the Diamond Lake resort.
Conservation groups have objected that the project allows commercial logging of big trees in the name of reducing fire danger.
The Bush administration had exempted Alaska's Tongass National Forest from the roadless rule, but this week the Forests Service said it would move logging projects away from the old growth forests in roadless areas and focus on areas that have already been logged.