Roadless wars

Should states or feds set roadless policy?


From 10,000 feet up, a host of interests, including conservationists, politicians and mining companies, like Idaho's unique scheme for managing its 9.3 million acres of federally designated roadless areas.

But from 100,000 feet—and at times, from Washington, D.C.—the equation changes.

Depending on the vantage point, Idaho's roadless rule, which went into effect in October 2008, is either the end of 40 years of wrangling over roadless politics or the end result of eight years of Bush administration attempts to weaken protections on those federal lands.

Five environmental groups, including the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club, filed suit against Idaho's roadless rule four days before the Bush era ended, arguing that it allows excessive new road building for timber cutting and phosphate mining and puts endangered species at risk. But the groups also argue that an Idaho-specific roadless rule sets a bad precedent of local control over national wilderness policy.

"We all benefit from the fact that these are federal lands and should be managed in the national interest," said Tim Preso, lead attorney in the case.

Thwarted in an attempt to repeal Bill Clinton's 2001 roadless rule, which established nationwide protections for more than 58 million acres of designated roadless areas, the feds suggested in 2005 that states petition for roadless rule exceptions under the Administrative Procedures Act.

Idaho took great initiative in its petition, first under Gov. Dirk Kempthorne and then under Gov. Jim Risch, who traveled the state with a large cardboard box full of data on Idaho's 250 roadless areas, the largest chunk of wilderness in the lower 48.

Risch now represents Idaho in the U.S. Senate and ran, in part, on this conservation record. He considers the Wilderness Society lawsuit disingenuous.

"If I were a member of that organization, I would be very angry," Risch said.

He said that his aggressive but inclusive effort to write Idaho's state-specific roadless rule, including input from each affected county, from mining and timber interests as well as conservation groups and the public, "virtually resolved" 40 years of disputes over roadless areas and that his view from Washington, D.C., does not change that.

"If I sit here in my office in Washington, D.C., trying to write a wilderness proposal for the state of Tennessee, that's nonsense," Risch said.

Mark Rey, as undersecretary of agriculture for natural resources, led the Bush administration effort to give states more jurisdiction over roadless areas. He argued that states have a better vantage point for identifying the relative importance of roadless areas and that governors can provide a meaningful political closure on roadless designation.

"The question is how good is the information, and the answer is it varies from state to state," Rey said. "It's not just better technical detail; it's important if you're going to defend something as roadless that it doesn't have roads in it."

When Rey suggested a way for states to write their own roadless rules and Idaho jumped at the chance, many assumed the target was the Clinton rule, reviled throughout much of the state's fading timber country.

"It was a commonly held belief that they were going to try to weaken those protections," said Jonathan Oppenheimer, a senior conservation associate at Idaho Conservation League.

But Risch surprised many conservationists, including ICL, by presenting a final roadless plan that kept much of the Clinton rule intact.

"That was when everything kind of changed," Oppenheimer said. "It's pretty darn close."

Risch carved up Idaho's roadless areas into five themes. The first three categories, all parties agree, are even more protective than the Clinton rule, locking up 3.2 million acres of roadless terrain with very few exemptions.

The fourth category, 5.3 million acres of "backcountry restoration" is the wild card.

Oppenheimer, as well as the U.S. Forest Service and a long list of groups that backed the Idaho plan, consider this roughly equivalent to the Clinton rule protections.

"The Idaho Conservation League position is we felt that this rule did strike a balance and wanted to give it a chance to work. And if it was being abused, then we would be the first at the door to line up at the Forest Service and challenge it," Oppenheimer said.

But the Wilderness Society had opposed the new backcountry designation all along, testifying against it in public hearings across the state.

Where the Clinton rule barred road building except under "imminent threat" of fire, the Idaho rule loosens the exceptions to "significant risk" of fire.

It also prevents the Forest Service from tinkering with the Idaho's management themes for the purpose of wilderness recommendations.

"That takes 5 million acres off the table for future recommendations for wilderness," said Craig Gehrke, Wilderness Society Idaho regional director.

The state's most permissive theme, 400,000 acres of general forest—twice the size of the Sawtooth Wilderness—will allow a good deal more logging and mining than under the 2001 rule.

Risch said that he specifically requested Wilderness Society input on the roadless rule, but Gehrke said he was clear that his group could not support a state-specific rule.

"I told him, 'no, the organization is not going to participate in dismantling the 2001 rule,'" Gehrke said.

There is a complicated political calculus in both ICL's and the Wilderness Society's positions as well.

The Wilderness Society filed its lawsuit the day after Risch voted for the Omnibus Public Lands Bill, a package that includes 2 million acres of new wilderness in nine states that Risch's predecessor, Sen. Larry Craig, would likely not have backed. Idaho's new Rep. Walt Minnick, a Democrat who sat on the Wilderness Society board for 25 years, joined Risch in condemning the lawsuit as a slap in the face to a collaborative process.

"I thought it was encouraging that there was so much consensus that we wanted to leave roadless areas roadless," Minnick said.

Gehrke agrees that Risch will be a better conservation vote than Craig was, but the Wilderness Society, a national group based in Washington, D.C., was also acutely aware that there would soon be a new sheriff is town. President Barack Obama supported a reassertion of the Clinton roadless rule when in Congress, and his administration promises a reprioritization of environmental policy.

Meanwhile, both the Clinton rule, the Bush repeal and now the Idaho rule are held up in multiple federal courts, a situation that Rey suggested will likely be resolved by the Supreme Court.