Friday, June 1, 2007

Far-reaching roadless legislation introduced in Congress

Bill would preserve more than 1.2 million acres in Sawtooth National Forest

Express Staff Writer

The remote, roadless reaches of the Smoky, Pioneer, Boulder and White Cloud mountains surrounding the Wood River Valley would be permanently preserved under a bipartisan bill introduced into both houses of Congress last week.

The legislation would protect 58.5 million acres of roadless national forest land in states stretching from Alaska to Florida, including 9.3 million acres in Idaho. More than 1.2 million acres in the Sawtooth National Forest would remain roadless.

Map adapted from Inventoried Roadless Area Map, Sawtooth National Forest A bill introduced into both houses of the U.S. Congress Thursday, May 24, would, among other things, preserve more than 1.2 million acres of roadless lands in the Sawtooth National Forest, including those areas highlighted above. Across Idaho, the legislation would preserve 9.3 million acres of roadless national forest land, while a total of 58.5 million acres of roadless national forest land would be preserved nationwide. Click to enlarge (PDF)

The bill would prohibit timber cutting in roadless areas, except to improve wildlife habitat or when deemed appropriate for other management objectives.

In the Senate, the bill's main sponsors are Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and John Warner, R-Va. Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash, is sponsoring the legislation in the House. No Idaho legislators have signed on as co-sponsors of either the Senate version of the bill, S.1478, or the House version, H.R.2516.

Inslee has introduced the bill in every session of Congress since 2002, but it made no progress during the Republican-controlled years. Lawmakers from both houses of Congress reintroduced the far-reaching legislation on May 24.

Titled the "Roadless Area Conservation Act of 2007," the bill would protect all remaining roadless national forest land not designated as wilderness from commercial development. It would reinstate the Bill Clinton-era "roadless rule," repealed by the Bush administration in May 2005.

Clinton's rule was popular with the public—it generated some 2 million written comments in support—but was challenged by nine lawsuits in federal courts in five states, including Idaho.

Former Idaho Gov. Jim Risch pleasantly surprised environmentalists last fall when he told a national advisory committee commissioned by the Bush administration that protection of Idaho's roadless areas should be enhanced.

"There were a lot of jaws on the floor," said Trout Unlimited's Chris Hunt, one of five Idaho sportsmen who testified in the governor's meeting with the Roadless Area Conservation National Advisory Committee in Washington, D.C., last November.

On Dec. 22, 2006, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns accepted Risch's plan, which would ban most road building on almost all the national forest land in Idaho protected under the Clinton rule. The Department of Agriculture is working with the state to put the plan into action. However, if passed, the newly introduced legislation would render that process moot.

The 58.5 million acres of roadless land proposed for protection in 39 states under the Cantwell-Warner-Inslee bill covers nearly one-third of the 193 million acres of forest and grasslands managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

Jonathan Oppenheimer, senior conservation associate for the Idaho Conservation League, said the group supports the new legislation.

"We supported the 2001 roadless rule," Oppenheimer said. "Roadless areas are one of the things that make Idaho, Idaho."

He said passage of the legislation would pull the issue from the almost endless rounds of ongoing litigation.

"It would hopefully provide some closure," Oppenheimer said.

In a news release provided by her office, Sen. Cantwell stated that the nation's remaining roadless national forest lands deserve protection.

"It's irresponsible and shortsighted to let logging, road-building and mining degrade these untouched lands," Cantwell stated. "With so few truly wild and pristine places left in our country, its time to strike a responsible balance and make the roadless rule law."

Roadless areas make up more than 20 percent of national forest land in Washington state, she noted.

Sponsors of the bill say it will help address the serious fiscal challenge presented by the more than $8.6 billion maintenance and reconstruction backlog on the 386,000 miles of existing Forest Service roads. More roads, in addition to degrading sensitive lands, would add to that backlog, Cantwell's news release states.

How the roadless lands bill would affect the chances of another piece of pending federal legislation, the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act (CIEDRA), isn't clear. CIEDRA, which Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, reintroduced into the House on Jan. 4, would designate three new wilderness areas totaling more than 319,000 acres in the Boulder and White Cloud mountains, north of Ketchum.

All three of the proposed wilderness areas—the White Clouds, Hemingway-Boulders and Jerry Peak—fall into the larger 461,475-acre Boulder-White Clouds roadless area, which would be protected under the roadless legislation. However, a portion of the proposed Jerry Peak Wilderness Area includes adjacent U.S. Bureau of Land Management land, which like all BLM roadless areas wouldn't be protected under the Roadless Area Conservation Act.

Like Clinton's 2001 roadless rule, the Roadless Area Conservation Act would not restrict motorized use on those national forest roadless areas that are now open to such use.

Nationwide, only Alaska contains more roadless national forest land than does Idaho.

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