Forest road ‘time out’ is good; now Congress should act

President Barack Obama has ordered a one-year moratorium on most road building and other developments on about 50 million acres of remote national forests.

The president’s “time out” is overdue.

What’s really needed is a definitive policy set by Congress.

Original road building regulations were established by then-President Bill Clinton in 2001. One of the last things Clinton did as president was ban road building on one-third of the nation’s federal forests. His move was backed by broad public support for what many called a milestone land conservation measure.

In 2005, George W. Bush overturned the ban on possible logging, road building, mining and commercial uses of some 58.5 million acres of national forest land. In an executive order, President Bush lifted Clinton’s moratorium and shifted control over roadless rules to individual states. Bush allowed the states to draw up plans for national forests within their jurisdiction.

Since then, the issue has been tied up in the courts. It hasn’t helped a bit that there have been conflicting appellate court rulings alternately upholding and overturning portions of Clinton’s 2001 rule.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is right when he says the federal courts “have created confusion and made it difficult for the U.S. Forest Service to do its job.”

Vilsack’s directive reinstitutes for one year most of the Clinton-era ban. Vilsack said that time out will ensure that the Obama administration can consider activities in the affected areas while a long-term roadless policy is developed.

It’s imperative that Clinton’s roadless rule’s legal status be resolved once and for all.

Let’s remember how this issue developed almost a decade ago.

The U.S. Forest Service held more than 600 public hearings around the country in a two-year period and accepted more than 1.6 million public comments.

A lopsided majority of the people who attended the hearings and wrote to the Forest Service supported the ban on road building.

Only after that incredible public response did Clinton act.

Under Clinton’s roadless rule, the lands would remain open for recreational use – hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, snowmobiling and dirt bike riding. But it seriously limited the ability of timber and mining companies to extract resources from federal lands.

Timber industry officials claimed the former president went way too far and that his decision would doom the logging industry.

Environmentalists claimed that Clinton didn’t go far enough and should have locked up more federal land. Environmental groups consider the road ban crucial since road building is often the first step toward logging, drilling, mining and other development in the forest back country.

Critics of the ban say roads are needed to fight wildfires and log small trees that otherwise could serve as fuel for catastrophic fires.

Under his new directive, Vilsack holds sole decision-making authority over all proposed forest management or road construction projects in designated roadless areas in all states except Idaho.

That state is exempt because Idaho developed its own rule under Bush’s policy giving states more control over remote forest lands.

Vilsack’s office says the secretary could still approve roads if necessary, for example, to protect public safety or forest health.

The directive’s most immediate effect is to halt plans for road construction in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. About 35 miles of roads are proposed as part of several timber sales pending in the Tongass, the nation’s largest federal forest.

Obama’s time out has been applauded by some environmental organizations as both needed and welcome.

Trip Van Noppen, president of the environmental group Earthjustice, said, “Roadless areas are important as the last remaining pristine areas in America, and they are a great bulwark in how we will protect our environment in an era of climate change.”

The Forest Service has been caught in the middle of this public policy tug-of-war far too long. It’s time for Congress to set clear policy direction on access to remote federal lands. The last thing we need is the U.S. Supreme Court legislating from the bench.

Obama’s time out gives Congress a year – more than enough time to provide much needed leadership on this issue of national significance.