By PATTI MURPHY
For the Mountain Express and The Associated Press
BOISE--Gov. Dirk Kempthorne announced Thursday that Idaho would move forward and develop a management proposal for the vast array of roadless areas in the state's national forests.
As a part of that process he'll nominate portions of the state's 9.3 million acres of roadless forest areas for continued federal protection from mining, logging and energy development. But the Republican governor isn't spelling out yet how far he'll go in exercising the new role in forest management that was granted to governors last month by the Bush administration when it overturned a Clinton administration rule that had barred development in roadless areas.
"For over 30 years the whole issue of roadless lands has been in limbo," Kempthorne told a roomful of supporters of the proposal and a group of reporters at the press conference. "The Bush Administrations has provided an opportunity for states to petition the federal government and identify how many of these areas can be resolved ... So, I intend to take them up on that offer."
Kempthorne said his plan would rely almost exclusively on public input and involvement to develop recommendations for the roadless areas. He has appointed Jim Caswell, a former national forest supervisor and current administrator of the Idaho Office of Species Conservation, to take the lead in the process.
Pointing to a stack of 10 existing forest plans piled on the podium, Kempthorne said the documents will be the starting point for public discussions. Local communities will be asked to evaluate the plans and identify any changes they believe should be made.
"This is not going to be easy," Kempthorne said. "If it were, it would have been done 30 years ago."
Kempthorne said that when the public input process is completed, he will want Caswell to "make the case to me on the suggested changes—why, and how broadly it's supported.
"If we don't have any changes, if no one comes forward with modifications, then that's what I'll submit," he said, adding that he believed there will be a widespread interest in participating.
Any changes made will be submitted to the Secretary of Agriculture to place in the Federal Register. Caswell said it would take approximately 18 months or less for the changes to take place.
Speaking in support of Kempthorne's proposal at Thursday's press conference were representatives from government, private industry and non-profit groups, including the J.R. Simplot Company, University of Idaho, Boise State University, Boise County, Idaho Snow Mobile Association, Trout Unlimited and the Idaho Conservation League.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a statement in support of the proposal as well.
"This takes great courage," said Sandra Mitchell, with the Idaho Snowmobile Association. "It allows every one in the state to participate."
Mark Dunn with Simplot said, "A weak-kneed governor wouldn't take this on."
Kempthorne is setting a deadline of the end of 2005, but said he will be sensitive to people's schedules around the holidays.
Kempthorne said that citizens living in urban areas such as Boise will have just as much say in the proposal as people living in the rural areas. "We all have our special hiking spots, camping spots, biking spots. This is too important a process to have only a few people participate," he said.
"None of us know what the outcome will be," Kempthorne said. 'The clock has started," Kempthorne said
The Idaho Conservation League stated in a press release that it is pleased to see Kempthorne "acknowledge the values of roadless areas, which represent Idaho"s Great Outdoors and are the source of Idaho's clean rivers.
"However, we fear that a haphazard approach will lead to harmful development in unspoiled natural places that Idahoans love."
Some western governors have chosen to let the U.S. Forest Service's existing management plans determine the future of forest planning in their states rather than enter the costly, complicated new roadless petition process.
"Governor Kempthorne was one of the biggest advocates for this, but now what we are seeing around the West is the recognition this petition process is very onerous and costly to states," said Robert Vandermark, director of the Heritage Forest Campaign in Washington, D.C. "And in the end, there's no guarantee it will be accepted at all by this administration."
Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana, which has 6.3 million roadless acres, criticized the new process in a letter to President Bush earlier this month. By giving the U.S. Department of Agriculture final say over petitions, there are "no assurances that state efforts and investments would bear fruit" Schweitzer wrote.
Utah Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. announced earlier this month that he wouldn't petition for protection of the state's 4 million roadless acres, preferring instead to let existing Forest Service management plans dictate future use.
Wyoming Democratic Gov. Dave Freudenthal has not decided yet how to proceed with his state's 3.3 million roadless acres, but like Schweitzer has said the new administration rule requires an economic investment with no guaranteed benefit.
Conservationists say Kempthorne's decision about how Idaho will proceed could be a bellwether for the future of the Bush administration's rule change. Kempthorne helped trigger the policy switch when he and the state filed suit against the Forest Service's Clinton-era roadless rule in 2001, arguing the federal government did not include states as partners in the process.
If Kempthorne succeeds in letting the existing Forest Service planning process decide the fate of Idaho's roadless areas, it would mean 5.66 million acres in Idaho potentially opened up to development.
The forest plans, most of which were drafted in the mid-1980s, also call for protecting 1.37 million acres as federally protected wilderness and prohibit road-building on another 2.28 million acres.
"The forest planning process of the 1980s highlighted the need to have a national roadless area rule because it was clear the Forest Service wasn't going to protect much on their own," said Craig Gehrke of The Wilderness Society in Boise. "If Governor Kempthorne just goes back to the forest plan, that highlights the need for the Clinton administration rule that the Bush administration overturned."