Rescind the Clinton 58.5 Million Acre Roadless Designations

Subcommittee on Energy Policy, Natural Resources and Regulatory Affairs

Committee on Government Reform, US House of Representatives

My name is Robert H. Nelson. I am a professor of environmental policy in the School of Public Affairs of the University of Maryland and senior fellow of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. From 1975 to 1993, I worked in the Office of Policy Analysis of the Office of the US Secretary of the Interior, devoting much of my time there to policy issues relating to federal land management. I have published many articles and three books on the subject of federal land management, including most recently A Burning Issue: A Case for Abolishing the U. S. Forest Service (2000). As a longstanding critic of many aspects of federal land management, I find myself in the somewhat novel position today of defending the future prerogatives of professional land managers. That is a measure of the concern I have with respect to actions taken by President Bill Clinton in his last few weeks in office.


In one of those last acts in January 2001, former President Clinton set aside 58.5 million acres of new “roadless” areas on the national forests. This was adding to an existing 35 million acres of roadless areas in the national wilderness system that had previously been approved by Congress within the national forests. Combined, if the Clinton action stands, Congressionally approved and de facto wilderness areas will now equal 93 million acres, almost half of the total land in the national forest system (192 million acres).


This is a vast amount of land to set aside in such a restrictive land status that precludes most management – equal to 5 percent of the total land area of the United States. Idaho has a higher percentage of its area in national forests than any other state, 40 percent. Following the Clinton designations, 25 percent of the total area of Idaho would now be in a wilderness status.


I believe the Clinton designation of this 58.5 million acres was a reckless and misguided regulatory action, in a category with some other unfortunate actions of the final days of the Clinton administration. Congress should apply the provisions of the Congressional Review Act to rescind these roadless designations. If the Congress does not do so, the Bush administration should act on its own administratively to accomplish this result.



The Central Issue – Management or No Management


I should emphasize that the main policy issue posed by the recent Clinton designations is not one of whether there will or should be any roadless areas on the national forests. Indeed, well before the Clinton directive, local Forest Service planners had already identified 24 million acres for roadless management in local land use plans for national forests – 40 percent of the total areas subsequently designated by the Clinton actions. The same planners had also designated an additional 15 million acres for roadless management in areas that lie altogether outside the areas that Clinton designated.


Whatever happens, most of the land at issue will remain unroaded for many years to come. Over the next 20 years, and according to Forest Service projections, no more than perhaps 5 to 10 percent of the areas designated by Clinton for a roadless status might actually become roaded, if the Clinton actions should now be rescinded.


The real issue is whether there will be adequate flexibility in the future with respect to management actions extending over about half of the total area of the national forest system. There are a host of reasons why active management may be desirable or even necessary on these lands. The Clinton roadless designations simply sweep aside any such possibilities by the imposition of a single national mandate precluding most management.



Procedural Failings


Prior to the Clinton designations, the Forest Service had been engaged for many years in the development of land use plans for the national forests in these areas. Local citizens had in good faith put in countless hours in learning about, discussing, and debating the land management options for the nearby national forest lands. For a third of the national forest system, these efforts were undermined by the roadless mandates. It amounted to a betrayal of the trust of these citizens on the part of the Forest Service.


The Forest Service recognized the violation of its own longstanding forest planning commitments, as indicated in the agency’s Final Environmental Impact (FEIS) for the roadless designations, released in November 2000. As the Forest Service FEIS stated, the agency had long sought to promote “a collaborative approach between agencies, partners and the [local] public” but, as many people would now inevitably perceive, “the Roadless Rule contradicts the [past] emphasis placed on collaboration” (FEIS, p. 3-369) and instead reflects a strategy of “maximizing national prohibitions” (FEIS, p. 3-238) on the use of national forest lands. As a result, the Clinton actions were likely to “undermine local communities’ trust in the [Forest Service] public involvement process over the short term,” although it could be hoped that “this trust may be regained over the long term” (FEIS, p. 3-369).


The Clinton actions also swept aside the longstanding role of the US Congress in determining the establishment of new wilderness areas on the federal lands. Since the Wilderness Act of 1964, Congress has specifically approved each new permanent wilderness area. This has often involved long debate and careful legislative consideration of each new area proposed for inclusion in the national wilderness system. In January 2001, in one action, the Clinton administration bypassed this process to increase the total acreage of effective wilderness areas on the national forest system by 160 percent. Although the Clinton roadless areas will not officially be wilderness areas, the combination of the regulatory management restrictions formally established by the Clinton actions, and the informal restrictions that are sure to be recognized in day-to-day management by Forest Service field employees on the ground, would make them for all practical purposes new wilderness areas. Over time, the roadless areas would be likely to become indistinguishable in management from the lands in the national wilderness system – as was in fact probably the expectation and strategy of the Clinton decision makers.


Most management options will automatically be precluded over the 58.5 million acres of roadless areas. I do not propose to suggest that any one type of management is appropriate for such a vast area involving so many local circumstances. What may be helpful for the Congress is to consider some of the many important management actions that would now be ruled out without any further consideration, and the possible reasons why such actions may actually be needed in the future for many of the areas that would now be designated for a permanent roadless status.


The importance of maintaining future management options comes clear to any careful reviewer of the Forest Service’s own Final Environmental Impact Statement for the roadless area policy. As well as any outsider could, the information and data documented at length by the Forest Service professionals themselves demonstrate clearly the folly of a single national policy that would preclude the great majority of forms of affirmative management over such a large part of the national forests.



Forest Fire and the Forest Environment


Despite the public image of protecting “nature” little touched by prior human impact, according to Forest Service figures, about 50 percent of the newly designated roadless areas in the lower 48 states actually consist of declining forests in a moderate to advanced state of ill health and ecological deterioration (FEIS, p. 3-83). The principal reason for their dire condition is a previous century of the Forest Service following an active policy of suppression of forest fire.


In ponderosa pine and other types of western forests, frequent low intensity fires historically removed the underbrush and other invasive tree species. Suppressing forest fires for decades disrupted this natural process, however, leaving many forests now with as many as 300 to 500 small and fire prone trees per acre, where 50 or so much larger trees might have been the historic norm.


During the 1990s, various national expert groups, including the National Commission on Wildfire Disasters in 1994 and the General Accounting Office in 1998 and 1999, warned that the west faced a high risk of catastrophic forest fires, if strong management actions were not taken to reduce the levels of “excess fuels” on western forests – and including prominently the national forests. Although the Clinton administration ignored these warnings and did little or nothing in response, prompted by the catastrophic fires of the summer of 2000, the administration was finally pushed to take action. By the fall of 2000, the Forest Service had established priority areas for forest treatments to reduce excess fuels and fire hazards on 89 million acres of national forest land.


Among these lands already identified as having a higher priority for fuels reductions were 14 million acres within the Clinton roadless areas — about a third of the total lower 48 roadless areas (FEIS, p. 3-86). In about 7 million of these roadless acres, the first step required would be mechanical removal of small trees and other excess vegetation.


All this proved inconvenient for the longstanding Clinton roadless strategy – which had been in the works well before the fires of 2000. A roadless status will effectively preclude most forest treatment actions — such as prescribed burning or mechanical removal of the trees — to reduce the risk of fire. Rather than accept the painful reality that its earlier roadless plans might now have to be shelved in light of the fire hazards facing the West, the Clinton administration put its wilderness ideology ahead of common sense. It simply plunged ahead with its pre-existing roadless plans with a minimal regard to the resulting potential fire hazards.


Hence, as the Forest Service FEIS states (p. 3-95), the Clinton designations will result in “more wildfires with [historically] uncharacteristic fire effects” within the 58 million acres designated for a roadless status. More generally, as compared with a more flexible management regime that maintained wider road access options, the Clinton roadless designations will “increase the likelihood of large fires in high priority areas, especially over the short- to medium term” (FEIS, p. 3-368).


There is also no assurance that the fires will remain within a roadless area; in a dry season, as tragically demonstrated in 2000 at Los Alamos, once the wind blows, anything can happen, potentially extending raging fires into roaded areas throughout a whole region. As the Forest Service found, there was a wide concern in the West that “roads are needed for fire suppression and for fuels management” (FEIS, p. 3-368). Hence, the Clinton roadless prohibitions would make it “harder to fight wildland fires” (FEIS, p. 3-368), leaving western populations exposed not only to greater forest destruction, but also to increased risks to their homes and lives. The federal government faces the prospect of spending many billions of dollars over the next decade in fighting western forest fires, if there are more repetitions of the summer of 2000.[1] The greater difficulty of fighting fires in roadless areas is suggested by that fact that, although twice as many fires are started in lower-elevation roaded areas nearer to urban centers, there are about an equal number of large fires that escape control in roaded and roadless areas (FEIS, p. 3-106).



Negative Environmental Consequences


When intense and historically unprecedented fires burn, the federal government not only ends up spending huge amounts of money (more than $1 billion in 2000) fighting them but the fires can do significant environmental damage. In the current crowded and unhealthy condition of many western forests, the high intensity fires that now burn may often become “crown” fires that consume the entire forest vegetation, including the older and larger trees. Burning at extremely high temperatures, current fires can “sterilize” the soil, later causing rapid runoff and siltation problems downstream. As former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt once said of an Idaho fire in an overstocked forest, it had “wiped out a population of bull trout. It vaporized soil elements critical to forest recovery; then when the rains come, floods and mudslides will pour down hardpan slopes, threatening lives and property a second time.”


For many years, an increasing share of Forest Service timber sales has been undertaken for “stewardship” purposes that have an environmentally beneficial purpose – and such sales are expected to be 60 percent of more of total timber sales in the future.[2] However, few of these stewardship sales will be economically or technically feasible, if road access is precluded in an area. Wildlife habitat improvements and other environmental goals that depend on active forest management to create the necessary forest conditions will suffer in these areas.


The Forest Service reports, for example, that “the Mexican spotted owl may benefit from timber harvest activities that maintain and develop large old-growth pine habitats, and alleviate risk from wildland fire, insects, and disease” (FEIS, p. 3-147). Other species that may benefit from more intensive forest management – and can suffer negative impacts from the roadless designations — include red-cockaded woodpeckers, Kirtland’s warblers, goshawks, and snowshoe hares (a primary lynx prey species) (FEIS, p. 3-147). In the absence of the ability to pursue stewardship timber sales, negative consequences for biodiversity of a roadless status must be balanced against other biodiversity gains from a roadless status for types of species such as grizzly bears and wolves that may experience negative impacts from close human contact. The key point is that, absent the locking in of a non-management regime by the Clinton roadless mandates, there would be flexibility for local forest managers to balance these various considerations.


Active forest management is generally good for the game species that support hunting. As the Forest Service reports, properly done, “timber harvest activity that results in the creation of a mix of habitats and a variety of age classes is generally beneficial to most game species” (FEIS, p. 3-286). It is often desirable “to manage for diverse [wildlife] habitat structures using timber harvest[s]” (FEIS, p. 3-287).[3]


According to the Forest Service FEIS, the roadless designations would mean “fewer acres of forest health treatment … accomplished,” including fewer efforts in “reducing insect and disease problems” that might then spread to other parts of the forests, including roadless and non-roadless areas alike (p. 3-120, 3-121). There would be “substantially less salvage volume” in roadless areas to address forest health and other problems created also by past fire and wind blowdown damages (p. 3-202).


The advocates of the Clinton roadless rule often pose the issue as one of forest protection versus the timber industry. This creates an appealing drama of good guys versus corporate rapers of the land. But timber harvesting has been sharply curtailed on the national forests over the past decade, and there is little prospect of it being significantly revived. [4] If more timber harvesting does take place in the future, it will be as an instrument of management for other forest stewardship purposes – including the efforts to reduce future risks of catastrophic fire and to improve biodiversity. In many places it will be the environment that will suffer if many important management options must be ruled out because they are impossible without road access.



Recreation Impacts


The potential economic values that would be automatically foreclosed by the Clinton roadless designations also involve future losses in recreation use that would be larger than the value of timber harvesting. Ninety percent of the current use of the existing roads within the national forests is for recreational access. At present, the largest part of recreation that occurs in the national forests is dependent on the access provided by the use of roads (FEIS, p. 3-219). The roadless designations would preclude future expansion of such recreation into further national forest areas, over time significantly increasing the levels of congestion in existing roadless areas (FEIS, p. 3-219) If the Clinton actions stand, they will leave 56 percent of the total national forest lands set aside for primitive recreation, and 44 percent will be available for all the many other forms of more developed forms of recreation (FEIS, p. 3-215).


Yet, activities associated with developed recreation sites tend to be more popular with the American public. A small part of the public seeks opportunities for primitive recreation in remote areas (FEIS, p. 3-271), relative to those who favor developed recreation. Moreover, according to the Forest Service, “future growth in recreation demand is projected to be greater for activities that require roaded access than for activities in more remote settings” (FEIS, p. 3-272). In 1994-1995, a total of 98 million Americans went picnicking on the national forests, as compared with 15 million backpackers. According to Forest Service figures, the single most popular type of recreation activity was making a visit to an historic or pre-historic site, as experienced by 123 million visitors to the national forests in 1994-1995 (FEIS, p. 3-271). Such visits typically depended on road access and further increases in developed heritage recreation would be foreclosed in the future to sites now located in designated roadless areas. (FEIS, p. 3-235).[5]


The preferences of minority groups for developed recreation partly explain the more rapid increases in public demands for such recreation in the United States in recent years. According to the Forest Service, “communities having a higher proportion of African American and low-income residents participated less in dispersed and winter recreation” (FEIS, p. 3-272). Moreover, “Hispanic populations prefer using developed recreation sites, and tend to regularly visit specific sites for day trips in large extended family groups.” (p. 3-271). As the recent 2000 Census emphasized, racial minorities and Hispanics are an increasing share of the total US population, and thus their recreation preferences will play an increasing role in overall recreation demands.


The people with the strongest tastes for primitive recreation tend to be higher income and white. According to the Forest Service, “people who have completed college participate more in hiking and backpacking than those with high school educations” (FEIS, p. 3-272). In 1994-1995, 95 percent of the visitors to officially designated wilderness areas were white Americans (p. 3-272).


Thus, the Clinton roadless designations will set aside a vast new area of the national forests for the benefit of a decreasing part of the total population of recreational users. This is likely to exacerbate some existing tensions with respect to access to national forests. The Forest Service FEIS describes the ongoing conflict in northern New Mexico among the “Forest Service, environmental groups, and Hispanic communities [that] has become vocal, litigious and violent” (FEIS, 3-358), and predicts that the Clinton imposition of new roadless restrictions will likely “worsen this situation” (FEIS, 3-361).


Among American Indians who participated in the roadless review, some saw benefits in the future effective exclusion of most Americans from access to roadless areas where there might be, for example, important tribal sacred sites. Others, however, as the Forest Service reports, “emphasized the need for road development to increase access to lands needed for economic uses, recreation, subsistence resource harvesting, and treaty-rights activities” (FEIS, p. 3-354). Given the need for the balancing of many factors, and like most other rural westerners, most native Americans rejected the Clinton “national prohibitions” and favored “local decision making regarding roadless area management” (FEIS, 3-354).


There tend to be sharp differences of opinion between those people living in the rural West who make routine use of the national forests and other people much farther away who might travel considerable distances to spend a week or two per year in the national forests on a summer vacation. Many local people expressed their discontent with the recent directions of national forest management – and natural resource management more broadly in the West – in the roadless EIS process.[6]


They also rather clearly demonstrated their views in the recent November 2000 presidential election. Al Gore, a leading national symbol of the Clinton policy approach favorable to roadless designations, received 26 percent of the vote in Utah; 28 percent in Alaska, Idaho and Wyoming; and 33 percent in Montana. Despite large inmigrations of new population groups in recent years into such states, and sharp declines in numbers of people involved in traditional commodity production activities, it is fair to say that the rural West as a whole is strongly opposed to the kinds of restrictions on future national forest management and access contained in the Clinton roadless designations of January 2001.



Energy and other Minerals Impacts


People who live outside the West in fact tend to have little direct stake in the management of the federal lands. Indeed, as described below, for many of them their principle concerns are perhaps best described as “symbolic,” seeking a means of making a visible social value declaration of one kind or another. The one major exception is energy minerals; as the recent electricity crisis in the West has shown, people all across the United States can be significantly affected by actions that encourage or limit production of oil, natural gas, and coal.


Federally owned coal, for example, represents about one-third of the total coal reserves in the United States, and is at present about 30 percent of total US coal production. Federal resources provide nationally significant amounts of oil and natural gas as well.


A total of 7.6 million acres of land with oil and gas potential are found within designated roadless areas and could be excluded from future energy production by the Clinton actions (oil and gas are not specifically excluded by the roadless designations but in most areas exploration and production would be impossible without building roads) (FEIS, p. 3-259). The Forest Service was not able to estimate gas reserves specifically within the boundaries of the designated roadless areas. However, it did calculate in its FEIS that there could be $96 billion of reserves of natural gas (including the reserves underlying all land ownerships) in western US provinces that have at least some part of the land in the province designated for a roadless status.


This result is broadly consistent with a recent study commissioned by the US Department of Energy (DOE). According to this study by the Advanced Resources International Corp., a mean estimate of about 11 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (about half of one year of US consumption) may underly the 58.5 million acres designated by President Clinton for a roadless status. These lands include parts of the “overthrust belt,” long considered one of the prime oil and gas exploration areas in the United States. Besides the outer continental shelf, the Rocky Mountain area – including large areas of federally owned land — is considered among the leading prospects in the United States for major new natural gas discoveries. The Clinton roadless designations are simply one part of a strong trend in recent years to close off public lands to energy and mineral exploration and development.


There are about 2.5 million acres of lands with underlying coal reserves included within the roadless areas designated in January 2001. Little of this land is under production at present (FEIS, p. 3-257). Nevertheless, the Clinton restrictions have the potential to limit future coal development. Indeed, they could result in the curtailment of production of at one existing major underground mine that requires new reserves in a roadless area for its expansion. Although there would be no surface disruption due to mining, it would be necessary to have surface access in order to delineate the coal seams and develop the engineering plans. Significant coal development – as well as phosphate development — in other local areas could also be precluded by roadless designations.[7]


Although legally it might be possible to obtain access to gold, silver and other “locatable” mineral deposits for the purpose of exploration and development, the lands in an area designated for a roadless status would probably be precluded for most such mineral activity. If the lands are effectively in a wilderness status, Forest Service managers have many ways of discouraging potential users, and mineral companies would not want to face the prospect of extensive litigation and protracted delays.



“Intrinsic Value” Considerations


By the historic standards of professional land management, President Clinton’s designation of 58.5 million acres of roadless area is difficult to comprehend. It seems to deliberately forego the multiple uses and associated major benefits from the national forests. In order to make sense of the Clinton actions, it is necessary to recognize that there may be new social values, and a new mindset, that are being invoked to shape the management of the national forests. The Forest Service in its roadless area planning and consultations did seek to address such considerations of “intrinsic value” (FEIS, p. 3-17) that fall largely outside the traditional past norms of professional land management.


From such a newer value perspective, sound forest management does not focus on achieving a high level of human benefits that result from direct uses of the forest. As the Forest Service stated, “many people believe that forests and wildlife have inherent worth in and of themselves, independent of their usefulness to humans, and should therefore be protected” from most human intrusions for their own sake (FEIS, 3-268). These forest values are sometimes designated as “passive-use” values because they do not necessary involve any direct presence in, interaction with or contact of a person with the forest. It is enough that a person have the knowledge of a particular condition existing in the forest that generates the “passive-use” value, in distinction to the “active-use” values that depend on a direct presence and consumption of forest benefits and have been the traditional concern of professional land management. A large literature has developed in the economics profession that seeks to study such “existence values.”[8]


In practice, the forest condition to be sought for its own sake is one that can be described as a “natural” condition of the forest. The Clinton roadless designations then might be seen as maximizing the total area of the national forests in which “natural” conditions exist. Indeed, from this perspective, there may be a fundamental moral obligation in American society to pursue such naturalness outcomes on the forests.[9] From this point of view, “inventoried roadless areas are remnants of vast landscapes substantially unmodified by high-intensity management activities (e.g, timber harvesting, mineral extraction, developed recreation)” (FEIS, 3-208), and thus valuable in themselves for this reason and deserving of comprehensive protection.