The public and politicians alike commonly cite the federal government’s roadless rules as great protectors of our forested wildlands. In reality, roadless rules don’t protect these National Forest System wild areas. While the Clinton Administration’s national 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule (RACR) might have had a strong start, environmental protection is never a one-and-done victory. Money and politics exert corrosive forces on environmental protections, and the roadless rules represent a compelling example of this corrosion. RACR created limited exceptions for timber harvest, and the Forest Service is now routinely exploiting those exceptions to get-out-the-cut in our roadless areas within Montana’s borders. When RACR came into play, Idaho also petitioned for its own roadless rule that lessened most protections for our national roadless areas in that state. The Forest Service in both states has evaded accountability for logging in roadless areas for about a decade, all while the public happily believes that the federal government’s roadless rules still protect roadless areas. Let’s understand how we got here.
RACR always has contained several exceptions that allow cutting trees in roadless areas. One particular exception allows logging “generally small diameter” timber to improve habitat for threatened, endangered, or sensitive species or to “reduce the risk of uncharacteristic wildfire effects.” In 2020, fire ecologists tell us that weather and climate drive fires, and logging cannot fix the climate or the stand-replacing-wildfire ecology that has naturally existed for centuries in the Northern Rockies. Wildlife biologists tell us that logging and thinning thick, mature forests and downed woody debris will only eliminate habitat for species like the Endangered Species Act listed lynx or the sensitive fisher or wolverine. We can’t have our cake and log it, too. Yet, the Forest Service disclosed to my nonprofit that, between 2010 and 2018, the agency used RACR’s exceptions to authorize at least 33,000 acres of logging in national roadless areas in Montana, the state containing the third largest acreage of our national roadless areas. When I crosschecked this self-reporting with the environmental documents available online, I accounted closer to 40,000 acres of roadless logging authorized; somewhere between 60 and 90 percent of those authorizations used the exception above. At its inception, RACR predicted 22,000 acres of small diameter trees would be logged nationwide in five years to reduce wildfires. In eight years, the Forest Service almost managed to double that number for our roadless areas in Montana alone, and under a theory that science has mostly debunked for the Northern Rockies. But, after RACR’s publication, in the time it took for the Forest Service to learn how to exploit the exceptions, Republican politicians also nakedly attempted to reduce protections in the nation’s roadless areas by allowing states to make their own rules.
Idaho, the state with our second largest roadless acreage, has its own roadless rule because President Bush attempted to undo RACR. The outgoing Clinton Administration issued RACR in 2001, and the incoming Bush Administration moved to modify it with a process where states could petition for their own, state-tailored rule. Then Governor of Idaho, Jim Risch, a former attorney for the timber industry (and now U.S. Senator from Idaho), ensured his was one of the two states who slid into Bush’s petition process before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck it down. The result is a state-specific Idaho Roadless Rule weaker on substantive protections for more roadless areas—only sixteen percent of our roadless areas in Idaho enjoy more explicit substantive protection under the Idaho Roadless Rule than they would have had under RACR. Most of the national roadless areas in fall into a category modified from RACR where the agency can authorize logging under the unscientific exceptions like needing to reduce “wildland fire effects” or to “improve” listed or sensitive species habitat, while eliminating any check on any requirements that trees be small or the wildfire risk be “uncharacteristic.” Idaho can essentially clearcut portions of your roadless areas with agency discretion that is notoriously difficult to challenge in court. Yes, the photograph below depicts part of a two-hundred-acre clearcut in one of your Idaho inventoried roadless areas, where the Forest Service sold the timber to a logging company in the name of wildfire-risk-reduction and still considers this an inventoried roadless area.
In the past ten years, the Forest Service disclosed to my nonprofit that it has authorized 19,000 acres of logging in your roadless areas in Idaho under the exceptions the Idaho Roadless Rule created. I could only confirm about 10,000 acres with the documents publicly available online, but the Forest Service has no reason to inflate such failures. To exploit these rules under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Forest Service needs to evaluate the impact of logging on roadless areas, and where logging used to impact roadless areas, the agency has modified this logic, too.
No matter whether your roadless area is in Idaho or Montana, creative logic in environmental reviews helps the Forest Service justify selling your roadless trees to timber interests. My review of the National Environmental Policy Act documents that authorized these sales revealed common justifications. The Forest Service maintains, in the face of contradictory science, that allowing natural historical ecological processes like fire or beetle-kill to play its role would hurt ecosystems. (Logging will save ecosystems!) If the Forest Service finds a roadless area with no uncut trees, cutting some trees would have minimal impacts. (Logging won’t cause that much damage!) If someone cut some trees in the roadless area half a century ago, roadless characteristics already fall short of a pristine and untouched wild area. (Logging won’t cause that much more damage!) Trees can grow back. (Logging has only temporary effects!) The Forest Service would only allow logging on one percent of roadless wildlands while exercising restraint in selling logging rights to the rest of the roadless area. (Logging a tiny bit here and there is okay!) Added up, the public has possibly lost up to 59,000 acres of roadless country to these justifications—and those were just in Idaho and Montana over the span of eight years. With at bare minimum of 59,000 acres cut in just the past decade, these losses will only continue to pile up. To my knowledge, nobody has dug into other states where the same Forest Service is implementing RACR or in Colorado, the only other state with its own roadless rule. We need to scrutinize what the Forest Service has been doing under our noses because have lost and continue to lose wild areas that, for two decades, we have assumed the roadless rules and our government have protected.
We public landowners need to wake up. Roadless rules aren’t protecting wildlands that, logged bite by bite, are becoming increasingly rare. Certainly, state-specific roadless rules for Alaska or Utah, both of which are under consideration, are dangerous. But, codifying the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule will condone the Forest Service’s current abuses. And codifying the Idaho Roadless Rule will go even further to protect timber interests. We need new and substantive protections of these wildlands with no unscientific exceptions—protections where the Forest Service is not permitted to gift our dwindling roadless wildlands to the logging industry. We need to replace this corroded wildland protection with stronger substance and we must stop happily and ignorantly believing the roadless rules are doing what they cannot. For the Northern Rockies, that stronger protection is the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA), where Congress would designate most of these roadless areas as Wilderness protected by the 1964 Wilderness Act. While this doesn’t solve the problem everywhere, it’s a great place to start.