Environmentalists are warning that large portions of Idaho’s roadless national forest lands could be opened to development under a draft plan the U.S. Forest Service has released to guide management of those areas. One area potentially impacted by the plan could be the Pioneer Mountains Roadless Area, shown here just east of the Wood River Valley.
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Many of Idaho's most remote and pristine roadless national forest lands not designated as wilderness could be opened to logging, mining, road building and other development activities under a draft plan the U.S. Forest Service released to the public last Wednesday, state and national environmental groups warn.
These areas are popular with hikers, hunters, anglers and other backcountry recreationists, and include large portions of the densely forested Clearwater country in north-central Idaho as well as wildlife-rich areas in the eastern part of the state near Yellowstone National Park.
Closer to home in the mountains surrounding the Wood River Valley, environmentalists fear the plan would allow the development of roadless lands in areas like the Smoky Mountains northwest of Ketchum and the rugged Pioneer Mountains east of the valley.
"It's stark," said John McCarthy Idaho forest campaign director for the Wilderness Society.
At the center of the current brouhaha is a draft environmental impact statement released by the Forest Service on Wednesday. The draft EIS analyzes the environmental impacts of a series of recommendations included in an Idaho plan written by former Gov. and now Lt. Gov. Jim Risch. Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter subsequently endorsed the plan after taking office.
Under a separate rule-making process that states can choose, Risch submitted Idaho's roadless-rule petition to the Roadless Area Conservation National Advisory Committee in Washington, D.C., in 2006. Colorado officials are also using the same process to develop their own state-specific roadless rule for more than 4 million roadless acres.
Risch's plan is meant to replace the 2001 Clinton-era roadless rule, which was challenged by Idaho and several other Western states, thrown out by the Bush administration and, ultimately, reinstated in early 2007 by U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Laporte in San Francisco.
For now, the Clinton roadless rule remains in effect as the law of the land, even though it continues to be challenged by some politically conservative Western states. Under that rule, all 9.3 million acres of inventoried roadless areas in Idaho receive the same level of protection. Nationwide, the Clinton plan protected 58.5 million acres of roadless national forest lands in states ranging from Alaska to Maine to New Mexico.
Only in very limited circumstances, such as when fuels reduction is needed to protect rural communities, can forest managers authorize development activities inside roadless areas protected under the Clinton-era rule.
While many aspects of the Risch plan are included in the Forest Service's plan released last week, some are not. How significant the changes are and how adequately the new plan protects roadless lands in Idaho depends upon whom you ask.
During an interview last Friday, Risch said that except for a slight change in the language in one section of the Forest Service plan, the draft document tracks well with his petition. He added that he will be the state's lead-off witness at a meeting of the roadless area committee in Washington, D.C., scheduled for Jan. 16-17.
There, Risch said he will reiterate his desire to see Idaho's roadless areas protected.
"I am not backing down," he said.
Risch said the state's 251 distinct roadless areas are some of the most magnificent properties in Idaho.
"They deserve our attention and they're going to get it," he said.
Risch said he met with environmental leaders in Boise last week "to make certain they're in agreement" that Idaho's plan does what it should and so "we're all singing off the same sheet of music."
Despite Risch's assurances, it seems not all environmentalists are in agreement that the state plan does what he and other state leaders have said it does.
For them, the differences between the new plan and the Clinton rule, which they continue to support saying it's the best alternative, are both dramatic and troubling.
"I thought the 2001 rule was good," McCarthy said. "I thought it provided good flexibility."
Unlike the Clinton plan, the state's petition and the Forest Service's new draft rule would release varying amounts of roadless national forest land in Idaho to development. While Risch's proposal would have released just over 500,000 acres out of the state's 9.3 million acres to development, the Forest Service draft rule increases that amount to approximately 609,000 acres.
Both recent plans would reclassify those lands under a "general forest" management emphasis, which would allow activities like permanent road building, commercial logging and mining. Local areas designated under this general forest emphasis include 21,000 acres on the southern end of the 291,650-acre Pioneer Mountains Roadless Area and a small 700-acre portion of the 461,475-acre Boulder-White Clouds Roadless Area just south of Fourth of July Creek Road near Stanley, Forest Service maps indicate.
Environmentalists are also troubled by an aspect of the Forest Service draft rule that classifies another 5.2 million acres of roadless forestlands in the state under a "backcountry restoration" management emphasis. That designation would allow road building when such an action is "needed to protect public health and safety in cases of significant risk or imminent threat of flood, fire, or other catastrophic event," the draft plan states.
Locally, areas designated under the backcountry restoration emphasis include portions of the Pioneer Mountains Roadless Area on its north and east sides that fall within the Salmon-Challis National Forest. Also included in this designation is the high-elevation Railroad Ridge area near Clayton and portions of the 346,499-acre Smoky Mountains Roadless Area near the Salmon River headwaters and in the Frenchman Creek, Smiley Creek and Beaver Creek areas.
Road building would also be allowed in areas designated under backcountry restoration emphasis "to facilitate forest health activities permitted under timber cutting, sale, or removal," the draft plan states.
The latter language, which the Clinton-era rule does not include, troubles environmentalists who fear that it could justify the opening of backcountry areas to unneeded development activities.
In explaining the rationale for the new language, the draft Forest Service plan states that the change in the text is focused on allowing forest-health activities when necessary "to perform expedited hazardous fuel treatment in backcountry areas at significant risk of wildfire and insect and disease epidemics."
While the Forest Service plan states that these exceptions are primarily focused on allowing projects near "at-risk communities," it also says that access inside roadless areas would be allowable where "the existence or imminent threat of an insect or disease epidemic is significantly threatening ecosystem components or resource values that may contribute to significant risk of wildland fire."
Changes like these are what most worry conservationists.
McCarthy said the Forest Service plan's heavy focus on mitigating wildfire threats could justify projects taking place in the middle of roadless areas far away from any at-risk communities. Saying the forests of Idaho are wildfire-dependent ecosystems, he said the new plan is just an excuse to develop roadless lands under the guise of forest health.
"We want wildland fires," he said.
While McCarthy didn't go so far as to say that the new plan would immediately lead to a whole new wave of logging in roadless areas, he said it would mean a new beginning for roadless-area logging projects in roadless areas managed as general forest and backcountry restoration areas. He said that during the 1990s, the Forest Service offered at least 100 timber sales in roadless areas statewide annually.
"I know we'll get some of them back," he said. "Why not? There's six million acres that get less protection (than under the Clinton plan)."
Not opened to development under the new draft plan would be about 3.2 million acres of roadless national forest lands in Idaho. Management of these areas would fall under two different designations—wildland recreation and primitive—which generally forbid any development activity except in the most limited of cases. Locally, areas designated as either wildland recreation or primitive include the higher and more western portions of the Pioneer Mountains Roadless Area, large areas of the White Cloud Mountains and much of the Smoky Mountains.
Though statements by Risch and others contend that the draft Idaho plan would fully protect the state's roadless areas, Forest Service documents seem to indicate otherwise.
In a series of tables included in the draft EIS, the Forest Service spells out the differences between the Clinton-era roadless rule and the draft Idaho rule. In terms of how the different plans protect non-commodity values—namely "acres retaining natural processes and roadless characteristics"—the tables state that all of Idaho's 9.3 million acres of roadless national forest land would remain as such under the Clinton roadless rule.
On the other hand, the tables state that the new Idaho-specific roadless rule would only retain natural processes and roadless characteristics on 3.2 million acres, the same number of acres the plan envisions protecting under the wildland recreation and primitive designations.
Using another measure, the tables indicate vast differences between the two plans when the number of "acres maintained in high to very high scenic integrity" is considered.
According to the Forest Service tables, the Clinton rule protects about 9.3 million acres of roadless national forest land in a state of high to very high scenic integrity, while the new state-specific plan would only retain about 3.5 million acres in Idaho as such.
As to whether the roadless lands would retain their wilderness characteristics, the tables state that the "majority of roadless areas retain their existing character" under the existing 2001 Clinton rule, while under the new Idaho rule "areas developed could have reduced wilderness character."
The tables also show distinct differences between the number of acres of high-sensitivity soils where road construction or reconstruction is permitted without restrictions for each of the plans. For the Clinton rule, that number is zero, and for the new Idaho plan, it's 235,200 acres.
His concerns aside, McCarthy isn't sure how effective officials with the Bush administration will be in pushing the new Idaho plan through before they leave office in about 13 months.
"I think it's going to be hard to jam this through. It's clear it's less protection," he said.
Environmentalists also question the Forest Service's timing in releasing the draft EIS right before the Christmas holiday.
"Under the cover of the hectic holiday season, the administration is trying to open the door to new development in the roadless backcountry of Idaho's national forests," a statement from the Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Forest Campaign says. "If the administration gets its way, our country will lose some of the most peaceful and pristine places within our national forests."
Public comment sought
The U.S. Forest Service's proposed Idaho-specific roadless rule will soon be published in the Federal Register, an agency news release stated last week. Once that happens, a 90-day public comment period on the proposed rule and the accompanying draft environmental impact statement will commence. The Forest Service will host a series of public meetings throughout Idaho to present the proposed rule and accept public comments. The revised rule can be seen at roadless.fs.fed.us/idaho.shtml.