Reflections on the Roadless Initiative Debate
By Gloria Flora

This article first appeared in Goat Tracks, the Journal of the Working Goat, September 2000.

To road or not to road that is the question... and millions of Americans have an opinion when the road building is proposed for currently unroaded areas in our national forests. As do more than a handful of goat packers!

The intense public interest in President Clinton's Forest Service roadless initiative is great to see. Getting the public engaged and excited about public land management bodes well for the future of our national natural resource heritage. There were four hundred public meetings and over a half a million official comments during the eight months of discussion. That kind of interest in any issue is a sure indicator that the Forest Service is doing its job, i.e., engaging the public in addressing vital issues in contemporary land stewardship.

Starting as early as the 1964 Wilderness Act, protecting some undeveloped public land has been a national priority. In 1976, the Forest conducted a repeat inventory of unroaded areas for Roadless Area Review and Evaluation.... RARE II. To date there still hasn't been a complete review and evaluation. But there have been a lot of roads built into those areas on that inventory. The rate at which unroaded lands were being lost was not sustainable. The question of how to modify our development of unroaded lands is essential to address now. The majority of the comments to date soundly support slowing development and not roading in currently unroaded areas. Yes, there are a few two-track roads in some of the areas identified as 'roadless' but on the grand scale of things -- 43 million acres is pretty grand -- there aren't enough to have to modify our language and the boundaries. This level of support is not surprising. In an election year, what politician would propose a controversial issue if there were a good chance it would fail? A poll taken by the GOP polling firm, American Viewpoint in the beginning of the year showed 76% of respondents supporting the proposal (54% strongly) and 19% opposed (15% strongly). Obviously, a powerful issue but even more obviously, it's a very popular position.

Also plainly obvious is that again the American people are making it clear that they want their natural resources protected, for now and for the future. Three hundred and eighty thousand of miles of road lace our national forests, millions of acres have been developed for resource extraction, millions more have lost their biodiversity and native species due in large part to traditional uses (logging, mining, grazing, roading, etc.) mislocated or poorly executed. Despite the overwhelming evidence that our national lands have been compromised, there are still those who fight vigorously to maintain business as usual. Alvin Toffler defined future shock as 'the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time.' In 1960 our knowledge of the world doubled about every 7 years. It is now doubling every 18 months. Knowing what we know now, we can no longer deny that most activities conducted on public and private land are not sustainable.

The argument that the roadless initiative denies people access to resources has two sides. Simply put, if the areas were easy to get to we already would have been in there extracting. We've had well over a hundred years to build roads into currently unraded areas. More importantly, if we were using roaded areas in a sustainable manner, we could be enjoying a steady flow of resources from those developed lands. Most of these remote areas have no roads in them for very good reasons:

Prices for natural resource products have not kept pace with other commodities. Costs of extraction, although lowered by technological advances, are still insufficient to offset some natural values.

The complaint that the comment period was too short has some validity on the surface. However, in reality, questions of access, roading and special area designation have been at the forefront of public land management debates for over three decades. It's more than past time to address roadless areas in a comprehensive manner. The arguments on both sides have been made repeatedly; there's not a whole lot of new information.

Some currently unroaded areas had been scheduled for roading under old Forest Plans. However, the recent Committee of Scientists Report for establishing new planning regulations and other investigative writings has confirmed what many Forest Service employees knew. Old Forest Plans were built under a timber optimization model, not a sustainable resource model. Political and industry forces pushed for higher timber volumes and the only place where it could even be suggested (without laughing) that more timber was available was in those blank spots on the map where there were little data on trees or anything else. The Forest Service knew that there would be significant limitations and very high costs associated with roading in those unroaded areas. But taxpayers have always subsidized commodity and amenity activities on national forest lands. If the timber were sold cheaply enough, roads could be built.

People frequently complain that the Forest Service doesn't operate like a business. True enough, it is not a business, it's a trust and asset management company, but prudent practices are still necessary. With thousands of miles of road in existence and an eight billion-dollar backlog of road maintenance, what sense does it make to build more road? Until we can maintain necessary roads and close unneeded roads, both of which fragment habitat and dump sediment into streams, we shouldn't be building more.

As our unroaded areas diminish, ecosystem and human demands are increasing. We must retain some unroaded lands to conserve biodiversity and to allow future generations options. Biodiversity is critical to the recovery of land and the health of the environment. Past actions in roaded areas prove that we are not very good at retaining biodiversity once we get motorized access.

Current trade policies and tax incentives favor major corporations (coupled with price controls, subsidies, mergers and deregulation). Prices for raw materials are kept absurdly low. Small towns aren't going to make it without help. One major flaw in this policy as well as other well-intended environmental protection actions is that there is no transition policy or program to help small towns and resource dependent communities adjust their practices and businesses tooperate under a new paradigm. There is no policy to deal with future shock.

The primary reason for this lack of a transition strategy is that corporations don't gain directly. Therefore, it doesn't register on the political scale. It's easier to lobby for status quo (follow the money to multi-national corporations) than to lobby for innovative new programs that emphasize restoration, value-added on-site manufacturing and true sustainability (follow the money to communities and small businesses).

We, as a nation, have to take definitive action to support small farmers, ranchers, and loggers, and small sustainable businesses in general, if we want to diversify and maintain resource-dependent communities. This can be done by reinvesting in our capital assets -- our natural resources. There is a tremendous amount of work to be done. And there is a great skill bank in resource-dependent communities to perform the kind of work necessary to restore watersheds and forest health. Putting the two together means jobs now and an investment in our natural capital for the future. Honorable work for a trust management agency and completely viable for the richest nation in the world... there's no excuse for inaction.

The roadless initiative is just one example of a public land management agency finally admitting that we cannot continue doing what we've beendoing and expect conditions to improve, or even stay the same. The long-term economy of western small towns and indeed the nation is dependent on publiclands being managed in a truly sustainable manner.

© Gloria Flora, September 2000