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Obama administration halts development in roadless parts of federal forests
by Matthew Preusch, The Oregonian
The Obama administration on Thursday took its first substantive step into the fray of public lands logging, giving the head of the Agriculture Department sole say over road building and timber sales in millions of acres of federal forests.
The directive gives Agriculture Department Secretary Tom Vilsack authority on development in roadless areas for one year.
"This interim directive will provide consistency and clarity that will help protect our national forests until a long-term roadless policy reflecting President Obama's commitment is developed," said Vilsack, whose department oversees the U.S. Forest Service.
The Clinton administration protected more than 58 million acres of federal lands with its 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule. The Bush administration later, however, left those areas' fates up to each state.
Meanwhile, conservationists and logging interests won conflicting court rulings, and sign-waving protesters took to the woods to try to block timber sales.
Although welcome news among opponents of logging or mining in the nation's remaining undeveloped areas, the decision was not unexpected.
As a candidate, Obama supported protection for roadless areas, and in a March letter to Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who supports the roadless rule, Vilsack said his agency would "move forward to conserve and protect these lands."
Upholding the roadless rule "was one of Obama's major environmental promises during the campaign, and this is a down payment on it," said Steve Pedery, conservation director for the group Oregon Wild.
Although it covers vast areas of the nation's public domain, the decision will have little immediate impact in Oregon because few logging projects have been proposed in the state's roadless areas, which include about 1.9 million acres of generally rugged forested areas.
But it could affect a thinning project in the Umpqua National Forest near Diamond Lake that includes about 966 acres of inventoried roadless areas.
Debbie Anderson, forest environmental coordinator for the Umpqua forest, said her office "would have to coordinate with our Washington office before signing off" on the project.
Anderson is among local and regional foresters now sorting out what the directive means for potential or planned logging projects in their forests.
"At the front end of logging season the secretary has basically said, 'We are not going to enter roadless areas unless I give the approval to do so.' And that's a strong signal to the agency," said Jim Lyons, Clinton's undersecretary of agriculture.
Most expect the Obama administration to use the time the directive buys to establish a national policy on roadless areas -- whether that means reinstating the Clinton rule or developing a new strategy.
During its tenure, the Bush administration replaced the rule with a process that required states to petition to have their roadless areas protected.
That is why Thursday's directive doesn't cover Idaho, which completed a management plan for about 9 million acres of roadless areas last year.
Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, whose members include mill owners that rely on logs from public lands, said that sort of local decision-making should be the model for how roadless forests are managed in the future.
That is preferable to "having a policy coming down from Washington, D.C., a dictate rather, that says you will or will not manage these lands," said Partin, who applauded Vilsack's engagement on the issue.
And the directive does nothing to resolve the various, often contradictory court rulings that have confused the status of roadless areas.
Different circuit courts covering different parts of the West have upheld both the Bush and Clinton versions of the roadless rule, and federal attorneys continue to defend the Bush version despite the change of administration, said Trip Van Noppen, president of Earthjustice.
"Today's announcement doesn't change that," Van Noppen said.
The Obama administration said Thursday that the conflicting court rulings had made it difficult for the U.S. Forest Service to do its job and that the directive would give time for the cases to make their way through the courts.
-- Matthew Preusch; email@example.com