Road rules

Activists try to tweak forest roadless policy before final approval

Roads to Nowhere: Ed Pandolfino surveys a road map of Tahoe National Forest.

Roads to Nowhere: Ed Pandolfino surveys a road map of Tahoe National Forest.

Photo By Larry Dalton

The road map of Tahoe National Forest looks like a blueprint for a plate of spaghetti. Some 3,000 frenzied miles of road noodle through most of the forest floor, carrying visitors—from backpackers to loggers to off-roaders—to every corner of the forest.

Between the noodles, where the roads have not yet encroached, a few great patches of forest remain in something close to their original state—the last, shrinking home of the Sierras’ old-growth trees and wild animals. It is these roadless areas that forest activists such as Ed Pandolfino say must be protected.

“If we can save these areas, it’s going to have a big impact on keeping the Sierra healthy,” Pandolfino said.

A new policy on the verge of approval by the U.S Forest Service could go a long way toward preserving Tahoe National Forest and millions of acres of national forest across the country.

The “roadless initiative,” as it is commonly called, would prohibit new roads in some 50 million acres of currently roadless national forest land and also prohibit commercial logging in these areas. The Forest Service is expected to give the new policy final approval in mid-December.

The policy is widely seen by environmental groups as a major step forward in protecting national forest. Some say the protection would be as significant as Teddy Roosevelt’s creation of the National Forest System.

Yet some environmental groups also say the policy contains major loopholes that must be closed before final approval.

For example, the policy does not prohibit off-road vehicles (ORVs) in roadless areas, a major disappointment to many like Pandolfino, who say allowing ORVs on forest trails threatens many sensitive species and destroys the nature experience for hikers and backpackers.

The policy also continues to allow mining, grazing and oil and gas leasing to continue on National Forest lands.

And while the policy bans commercial logging in roadless areas, it says nothing about so-called “stewardship” or “salvage” logging, the removal of trees ostensibly for the purpose of preventing serious fires and maintaining forest health.

Many say that such stewardship logging is often nothing more than commercial logging under the guise of fire suppression.

“It’s a big fraud,” said Ryan Henson, with the California Wilderness Coalition. “Only a small portion of so-called stewardship logging has anything to do with true stewardship.”

In 1997, about 40 percent of the timber removed from national forests was from so-called stewardship logging, up from 29 percent in 1993. The idea is that some trees have to be removed because they are dying from fire damage or disease. But Henson says that healthy trees are often removed.

“We have seen abuse after abuse of this practice,” he added.

Not surprisingly, timber groups are criticizing the policy as well. They say the ban on all commercial logging and new road construction threatens forest health.

Chris Nance, with the California Forestry Association, said the new policy doesn’t allow enough forest maintenance, which is achieved through a combination of prescribed burns and timber harvesting—including commercial logging—to effectively prevent catastrophic forest fires.

“Catastrophic wildfire is the greatest threat to our national forest,” Nance said. “This policy only increases that threat.”

But environmentalists argue that catastrophic fires are far more severe in areas that have been “managed,” because logging often removes the largest, fire-resistant trees and the canopy that keeps the forest floor shaded and damp. And logging leaves behind “slash” and other debris that make for ready kindling.

It is the relatively wild, roadless areas, say environmentalists, that seldom see the kind of catastrophic fires that have made so many headlines in recent years.

“These are the last places that you want to see that kind of management,” said Kevin Hoeke with the American Lands Alliance. “It’s plenty healthy as it is. Just leave it alone.”

Hoeke’s position is supported by a 1997 University of California report that found logging in the Sierras has “increased fire severity more than any other human activity.”

Although the policy doesn’t ban ORVs, off-road groups are also grumbling about a blanket policy that prevents new trails and roads from being opened up.

Don Amador, a spokesperson for the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a national group representing the interests of ORV users and manufacturers, said he is hopeful that the policy will be changed during the next presidential administration to allow local forest officials to decide on new roads and trails.

“If Bush wins, you’ll see an administration that is more supportive of the multiple-use idea,” Amador said.

But Tina Andalino of the California Wilderness Coalition said she thinks it’s unlikely that Bush would be able to roll back the initiative significantly.

“I wouldn’t put it past him, but I think he’ll find it difficult. This is a very popular policy," said Andalino. The policy drew an unprecedented amount of public support, with nearly 2 million citizens submitting comments on the policy.