Avalanche of objections to Bush forest-road plan

Mary Jo Pitzl
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 16, 2004 12:00 AM

The nation's forests risk being crisscrossed with new roads if a Bush administration proposal becomes practice, groups ranging from conservationists to hikers to Democratic governors said Monday.

Their opinions were among an avalanche of an estimated 1.7 million comments opposing changes to the "roadless rule," which bans road construction in the forests. Monday was the final day for public comment to the U.S. Forest Service.

Proponents say the Bush plan would give land managers flexibility and would better reflect local needs.

But opponents said more roads would spell disaster for the forests and the multiple purposes they serve, from hunting and hiking to protection of the rivers and creeks that form Western watersheds. They fear the proposal is being made to allow more timber companies, mining and oil- and gas-exploration companies access to the nation's forests.

The roadless rule, enacted in the final days of the Clinton administration, put a blanket ban on road construction on 58 million acres of forest nationwide. That includes 1.2 million acres in Arizona.

In July, the Bush administration proposed dropping the uniform ban and turning instead to local officials, such as the nation's governors, to shape policy.

Gov. Janet Napolitano, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Washington Gov. Gary Locke argue that the governors already have a voice in forest decisions. And, they said in a letter to departing Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, oversight of federal lands belongs to the federal government, not the states.

A state-by-state policy risks being blind to "the real value of disappearing wildlands to the nation as a whole," they wrote.

Lori Faeth, Napolitano's adviser for natural resources, said allowing more roads into federal forests in Arizona increases wildfire risk.

"If you provide greater access for humans into these areas, there's a greater risk of fire," Faeth said.

That's because there are three times as many human-caused wildfires in Arizona as those caused by lightning strikes, and man-caused fires are far more damaging, she said.

"One hundred percent of catastrophic fires that took out property were human-caused," Faeth said, citing the "Rodeo-Chediski" fire of 2002 and the "Aspen" fire on Mount Lemmon in 2003.

Hunters associated with the National Wildlife Federation say roadless areas support the biggest populations of game animals, and new roads would fragment these prime hunting areas.

"Teddy Roosevelt told us that there can be no greater priority than conservation in this country," said Larry Schweiger, president of the wildlife federation.

Federal officials tout the proposal as a more flexible approach to forest management, and one that might avoid the lawsuits that have tied up the Clinton-era rule.

Lewis Tenney, who used to run a lumber mill in northern Arizona, said managers have to be able to get to the public lands they're responsible for.

"Every time you lock up your land, you limit yourself in what you can do to take care of the resource," he said.

For example, new roads might be needed to reach forest stands ravaged by bark beetles, he said.

Richardson, in a teleconference call Monday, said President Bush and the next secretary of Agriculture have a "golden opportunity" to drop their proposed changes, in light of widespread opposition to their plan.

Veneman, who as head of the Department of Agriculture oversees the Forest Service, announced her resignation Monday.

The National Association of State Foresters is urging federal officials to stick to their existing forest-planning process, which has been superseded by both the Clinton plan and the Bush proposal.

Opponents estimate they generated at least 1.7 million comments. Forest Service officials said they didn't have a precise count of how many had arrived as of Monday, nor what position they took.

The Forest Service will read all the comments, analyze them, and may create a revised rule, said Heidi Valetkevitch, spokeswoman for the Forest Service. She could not estimate when that would happen.

Editorial: May 17, 2000