Roadless Rule Bill: The Timing is Right, So Pass It

By Beacon Staff

Unnoticed by many, two members of Congress from Washington have decided it’s about time to do something to resolve the seemingly endless debate over the future of our last roadless lands.

Sen. Maria Cantwell and Rep. Jay Inslee, both Democrats, have re-introduced the National Forest Roadless Area Conservation Act (S.1738, H.R. 3563) to codify the Clinton-era Roadless Rule that has been on a legal roller coaster for the past nine years.

“Our last remaining roadless areas are a cherished legacy that must be protected under law for generations to come, not left a victim to the back-and-forth of court opinions,” Cantwell, who is a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee with jurisdiction over public lands, said in a press release. “It would be shortsighted and reckless to permit logging, road-building and mining to degrade these untouched lands.”

I’ve always wondered why this legislation, which has been introduced continuously since 2002, has gone nowhere, even though perhaps the most exhaustive public involvement ever showed that the vast majority of Americans (about 4 million sending in comments) support it. That’s the first question I asked Congressman Inslee during our phone interview.

“In part, it might be because the rule has been in place and that has provided some protection,” Inslee answered, “but we think it is important to do on a legislative basis, so we don’t have to worry about what the President will do every four years. Americans spoke and they wanted protection for their pristine areas. These are national treasures, and we have to take care of them.”

Conservationists clearly agree with Inslee. “Many within the sportsmen’s community want to see the long-term conservation of our national forest roadless areas,” Joel Webster of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership said in an e-mail when asked about the bill. “The TRCP believes a strong national roadless rule, codified through legislation, is the best way to ensure that the backcountry is sustained for future generations of sportsmen.”

While strongly supporting this ongoing legislative effort, conservationists have also voiced concerns about the current Roadless Rule. First, it does little, if anything, to stem the advance of ATVs and other motor vehicles, much of it unauthorized or illegal, into the pristine areas and resulting in destruction of the qualities that might qualify them for future inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Second, the Roadless Rule is packed with exemptions allowing various forest management activities that local foresters can bend into justification for building roads and destroying wilderness values.

But Inslee said his bill doesn’t address those concerns and probably won’t. There’s always a chance of an amendment, he noted, but right now, the legislation is an exact codification of the Roadless Rule as first enacted back in 2001.

Despite past failures, Inslee said the bill’s chances are much better this time. “We have a president who will uphold the rule. It’s night and day between Obama and Bush, who did everything he could to violate the rule.”

On top of that, Inslee added, “we have more co-sponsors than ever.”

No doubt the bill has an impressive line-up – 154 co-sponsors in the House and 24 in the Senate. Regrettably, though, the list of 180 sponsors and co-sponsors includes only nine Republican representatives (all from east of the Mississippi) and no Republican senators.

Cantwell and Inslee refer to their bill as “bipartisan,” which might be wishful thinking. But should this matter? Democrats have the majorities, so with or without Republicans, they should be able to pass it.

Seems simple enough, but then we have this insane congressional protocol where a bill must have support from the state’s senators and representatives or it goes nowhere, even if it deals with federal lands owned by all Americans. Among western states containing most of our remaining roadless forests, only Arizona, California, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington have senators and representatives willing to sponsor or co-sponsor the codification of the Roadless Rule, and even that support is spotty. Not a single member of the Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah or Wyoming delegations is willing to support protecting our roadless lands.

And then, if not more worrisome and embarrassing, key Democrats are MIA and could keep the bill from passing.

In the Senate, even Montana’s Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, narrowly elected two years ago after a hard-fought campaign and probably because he promised to protect roadless lands, is not on the co-sponsor list, nor is Montana’s senior Sen. Max Baucus, Colorado’s Mark Udall or Nevada’s Harry Reid, all Democrats.

Same goes for the House: no support from key Dems in “roadless land states” such as Arizona’s Gabrielle Giffords, Ann Kirkpatrick and Harry Mitchell; Colorado’s Jared Polis; Washington’s Norman Dicks; Idaho’s Walt Minnick; and Utah’s Jim Matheson.

But protecting our roadless lands does have solid Democratic support from Florida, Illinois, New York, Ohio and most other eastern states.

Such a line-up is hardly breaking news. Over and over, mostly Democrats, mostly hailing from states without significant acreages of national forests, seem to stand alone in caring about protecting our roadless lands.

But in this case, does this all-to-common political landscape matter? The codification has some support from key roadless land states, like California, Oregon and Washington. But is this enough to prompt Congress to actually vote on something most Americans want? Can Dems find their backbone, close ranks, and just pass it?

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