Rescind Clinton’s 58.5 Million-Acre Roadless Designations

On Point No. 78


In one of his last acts as president, Bill Clinton set aside 58.5 million acres of “roadless” area in the national forests. This adds to the existing 35 million acres of roadless area within the national wilderness system, previously approved by Congress. If the roadless rule stands, Congressionally approved and de facto wilderness areas combined will equal 93 million acres, almost half of the 192 million acres in the national forest system.


This is a vast amount of land—equal to 5 percent of the total land area of the United States and approaching the size of the state of California—to set aside in a restricted-land status that precludes most management. In order to maintain the flexibility to pursue needed management over these 58 million acres, either Congress or the Bush administration should take steps promptly to rescind the Clinton roadless designations.


The central issue—management or no management. The main policy issue posed by the recent Clinton designations is not one of whether there will, or should be, any roadless areas in the national forests. Indeed, well before the Clinton directive, local Forest Service planners had identified 24 million acres for roadless management in local land-use plans for national forests—40 percent of the area designated by the rule. The same planners had also designated an additional 15 million acres for roadless management on land that lies outside the areas that Clinton designated.


The real issue is whether there will be adequate flexibility in the future for management actions affecting nearly half of the total area of the national forest system. Active management of some of these lands may be desirable or even necessary. The roadless designations simply sweep aside any necessary flexibility with the imposition of a single national mandate that precludes most management.


Procedural failings. For many years prior to the recent roadless designations, the Forest Service engaged in the development of land-use plans for the national forests in these areas. In good faith, local citizens committed countless hours to learning about, discussing, and debating the land-management options for the nearby national forest lands. The roadless mandates undermine these efforts and betray local citizens’ trust in the Forest Service.


In the Forest Service’s Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the roadless designations, released in November 2000, the agency recognizes it violated its own longstanding forest-planning commitments. As the FEIS states, the agency had long sought to promote “a collaborative approach between agencies, partners and the [local] public” but “the Roadless Rule contradicts the [past] emphasis placed on collaboration.”[1] Instead, it reflects a strategy of “maximizing national prohibitions”[2] 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 hopes that “this trust may be regained over the long term.”[3]


The rule also swept aside the longstanding role of the US Congress in determining the establishment of new wilderness areas on 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 in the national forest system by 160 percent. Although the roadless areas will not officially be wilderness areas, the combination of formally established regulatory management restrictions and the informal restrictions will make roadless areas for almost all practical purposes new wilderness areas. Over time, the roadless areas will likely become indistinguishable in management from the lands in the national wilderness system—as was probably the expectation and strategy of the Clinton decision-makers.


Forest fire and the forest environment. Despite their public image as “nature” little touched by prior human impact, about 50 percent of the newly designated roadless areas in the lower 48 states actually consists of declining forests in a moderate to advanced state of ill health and ecological deterioration.[4] The principal reason for their dire condition is the Forest Service’s century of suppressing forest fires.


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, particularly the national forests. The Clinton administration ignored these warnings and did little or nothing in response, until the catastrophic fires of the summer of 2000. These fires finally spurred the administration into action; that fall, it identified land with a high priority for fuel reduction. The high-priority land included 14 million acres that Clinton later designated as roadless areas—about a third of the total roadless areas in the lower 48 states.[5]


The result will be more fires in roadless areas. And there is no assurance fires will remain within a roadless area. As tragically demonstrated in 2000 at Los Alamos, in a dry season, anything can happen once the wind blows. Raging fires can extend into roaded areas and then throughout a whole region.


Negative environmental consequences. When intense and historically unprecedented fires burn, not only does the federal government end up spending huge amounts of money (more than $1 billion in 2000) fighting them, but also 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 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 silt deposition problems downstream. As former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt once said of an Idaho fire in an overstocked forest, the fire “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 for “stewardship” purposes that have an environmentally beneficial purpose. Such sales are expected to be 60 percent or more of total timber sales in the future. However, few of these stewardship sales will be economically or technically feasible, if the law precludes road access in an area. Wildlife-habitat improvements and other environmental goals that depend on active forest management will suffer in these areas as well.


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.”[6] 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).[7] The roadless status’s negative consequences for these species must be balanced against its gains for types of species such as grizzly bears and wolves. Local forest managers should be able to balance these considerations, without being locked in by the roadless mandate’s non-management regime.


Impacts on energy and other 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 the 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. The roadless designations are simply one part of a recent strong trend to close off public lands to energy and mineral exploration and development.


A total of 7.6 million acres of land with oil and gas potential exist within designated roadless areas. The Clinton action excluded these reserves from future energy production. Although oil and gas are not specifically excluded by the roadless designations, in most areas exploration and production would be impossible without building roads.[8] 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 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. 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 underlie 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 American prospects for major new natural gas discoveries.


Additionally, there are about 2.5 million acres of land with underlying coal reserves included within the roadless areas designated in January 2001. Little of this land is under production at present.[9] Nevertheless, the restrictions have the potential to limit future coal development. Indeed, they could result in the curtailment of production at one existing major mine that requires new reserves in a roadless area for its expansion. 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 roadless status probably precludes 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.


Impacts on recreation. The automatic foreclosure of potential economic values by the Clinton roadless designations also involves larger future losses in recreational use. Ninety percent of the current use of the existing roads within national forests is for recreational access. If the roadless rule stands, it will set aside 56 percent of the total national forest lands for primitive recreation, leaving only 44 percent available for all the many more developed forms of recreation.[10]


Yet, activities associated with developed recreation sites tend to be more popular with the American public. A smaller part of the public seeks opportunities for primitive recreation in remote areas.[11] 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.”[12] In 1994-1995, a total of 98 million Americans went picnicking in the national forests, as compared with 15 million backpackers.


The recent years’ more rapid increase in public demand for developed recreation is due in part to the preference for these areas by minority groups. According to the Forest Service, “communities having a higher proportion of African American and low-income residents participated less in dispersed and winter recreation.”[13] Moreover, “Hispanic populations prefer using developed recreation sites, and tend to regularly visit specific sites for day trips in large extended family groups.”[14] 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 roadless designations are likely to exacerbate existing tensions with respect to access to national forests. The Forest Service FEIS explains the ongoing conflict in northern New Mexico among the Forest Service, environmental groups, and Hispanic communities “has become vocal, litigious and violent,” and predicts that the imposition of new roadless restrictions will likely “worsen this situation.”[15]


Conclusion. Traditional public-land management has shown major failings, and it is necessary to make basic changes in the institutional framework of such management. However, these changes should be grounded in accurate perceptions of fact and consequence, not the misconceptions of many who often are so far removed in physical distance from the national forests that they have little basis for expressing any contradiction. Congress should rescind the Clinton roadless designations and begin anew the process of seeking better solutions to the policy issues of proper management and use of the national forests.


[1] USDA Forest Service, Final Environmental Impact Statement (November 2000), p. 3-369; available at http://roadless.

[2] Ibid., p. 3-238.

[3] Ibid., p. 3-369.

[4] Ibid., p. 3-83.

[5] Ibid., p. 3-86.

[6] Ibid., p. 3-147.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., p. 3-259.

[9] Ibid., p. 3-257.

[10] Ibid., p. 3-215.

[11] Ibid., p. 3-271.

[12] Ibid., p. 3-272.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., p. 3-271.

[15] Ibid., pp. 3-358, 3-361.