Time to Codify the Roadless Rule

By Beacon Staff

On Jan. 5, 2001, with George W. Bush’s moving van parked at the back door of the White House, President Bill Clinton signed his now-infamous Roadless Rule. With a stroke of his pen and without the approval of Congress, Clinton protected almost one-third of our national forests, 58.5 million acres, from road building.

Speaking at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., Clinton said he did it “for our children,” and to keep bulldozers out of the last pristine forest lands. “This is about preserving the land which the American people own, for the American people who are not around yet,” Clinton announced.

The incoming Bush administration immediately reversed the rule, but a judge rapidly reversed the reversal. Ever since, the Roadless Rule has been a tennis ball, back and forth, on and off, mired in a ridiculous succession of administrative rules and court cases, making it hard to decide who’s ahead in the game. As I write this, to emphasize the folly, two judges have made opposing rulings, one spiking the Roadless Rule, one re-affirming its validity.

So, I say, let’s end the tennis match and make the Roadless Rule the law of the land.

On Nov. 4, Americans swept Barack Obama and a bluer-than-ever Congress into office. Although certainly not the highest-priority issue facing the Dems, finally and permanently protecting our roadless national forests should be a high priority – and certainly one of the easiest to accomplish.

What makes it so easy for our new political team? Simply put, a lot.

• The Roadless Rule has been, in essence, the law of the land for national forest managers for most of the past eight years, so we’d merely be codifying the status quo.

• The rule has been wildly popular. In the most extensive public involvement process ever – 600 public hearings bringing in 1.5 million public comments – over 90 percent of the populace supported the rule.

• Codifying the Roadless Rule is a much easier political pill to swallow than congressionally mandated Wilderness. It won’t, for example, prevent ATV use or mountain biking, so these powerful lobbies won’t be on the front line brutalizing politicians who support the Roadless Rule. Likewise, the rule has numerous exemptions for public health and safety, firefighting, thinning and wildlife habitat manipulation. It won’t stop fossil fuel development, but in some cases will require directional drilling. All the Roadless Rule does is prohibit new permanent roads, but that would be a tectonic leap forward.

• The constituency supporting the rule has suddenly become much stronger and a tad redder. Originally devised and pushed into reality by environmental groups like the Wilderness Society and Sierra Club, the Roadless Rule has now become the focus of hunting and fishing organizations, a more conservative and politically moderate constituency, with groups like the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) leading the charge.

• And it’s already half-cooked. Ever since 2001, there has been legislation (S. 1479 and H.R. 2516) drafted, introduced, and waiting for a vote, but locked down by Republicans.

In late October, as a participant in the TRCP Media Summit, I spent a day fly fishing for way-too-savvy trout in the Missouri River with the group’s Roadless Rule specialist Joel Webster. We talked Roadless Rule all day, and I even took a few notes between casts.

“We (TRCP) believe the national Roadless Rule needs to be codified with legislation,” Webster said. “It’s time to resolve this issue.”

TRCP, he notes, has nicely positioned itself to take the leadership role. The group’s partnership approach to conservation has already built a huge coalition of nonprofit groups and corporate supporters and has become a potent political force. Perhaps the TRCP’s most notable success was the recently passed Farm Bill with its renewal of CRP farmland withdrawals and creation of the Open Fields program, the first-ever federal funding of hunting access to private land.

“We talk a different language than the environmental groups,” Webster explained. “We bring a lot to the table that hasn’t been there before.”

Webster credits his group’s approach with its success. He and his co-patriots work from the bottom up to “crush politicians from below.” By that, he means conservative politicians normally voting against any land withdrawal while favoring resource extraction on public lands have made a career of bragging about taking the opposite views of “extreme environmentalists,” but they haven’t be hit with a grassroots lobbying campaign from the same guys they often join on hunting and fishing trips.

Besides, Webster concluded, the Roadless Rule is a political lay-up. “It doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t close anything. It just prevents new system roads from being built.”

Skepticism is running high. Democrats have controlled Congress for two years without passing any significant environmental legislation. They blame their woeful performance on the slim majority that can’t bust filibusters of a strong minority or override the vetoes of an anti-environmental president. Now, with a strong majority, albeit still not filibuster-proof, and a friend of the planet moving into the White House, the so-called Blue Tide needs to come through for us. There is no better, easier place to start than digging the Roadless Rule bill out of the congressional cellar and immediately passing it.

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