On May 5 the Bush administration repealed protections for "roadless areas" in our national forests, the last and best unprotected wild places we have left.
Virginia has about 390,000 acres of "inventoried" roadless areas, including almost a quarter of the George Washington and Jefferson national forests. Nationwide, the Roadless Area Conservation Rule adopted in 2001 would have protected something less than a third of our 190-million-acre national forest system from costly, destructive and unnecessary roads.
The Appalachians are the least developed region in the East, but even here roadless areas are scarce and precious. Virginia is exceptional in that it is blessed with more roadless acreage than all the rest of the southern Appalachian national forests put together. Those forests contain approximately 5.5 million acres stretching from Virginia and Kentucky to northern Alabama and Georgia. The "inventoried" roadless areas are only a fraction of 1 percent of the total acreage of these states.
Although we have lost a lot, the Appalachian region is in far better shape than many other regions.
Of the 6 million acres of national forest in Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Kentucky and Mississippi, less than 2 percent of the acreage is considered to be roadless. Past and current Forest Service management plans have allowed this to happen.
The Roadless Area Conservation Rule provided protections for drinking water sources, rare species, wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities. It provided benefits to local economies from increased tourism, camping, hiking, bird watching, hunting and fishing while accommodating firefighting and prevention. It was fiscally conservative, science-based and responsive to the public's concerns.
Adoption of the 2001 Roadless Rule involved years of scientific and economic analysis and the greatest public participation in federal rulemaking history, with more than 600 local public hearings and millions of comments submitted. Tens of thousands of Virginians responded, with 98 percent favoring the protection of roadless areas. Yet the Bush administration wiped away the protections without a single public hearing. And in contrast to the original rule, the repeal occurred without the rigorous scientific analysis and public involvement used to prepare an environmental impact statement. This shirks a large responsibility to taxpayers and instead caters to the logging, mining and drilling industries that are subsidized on public lands.
The new rule sets up a voluntary state-by-state petitioning process. Governors can petition the federal government to protect all, some or no roadless areas. Governors can even petition to have roadless areas opened to development. Since petitions can be denied by the administration, however, decisions are not really made at the state or "local" level but by bureaucrats in Washington. And even if a petition is accepted, a costly state-by-state rulemaking process has to be followed.
Sadly, the U.S. Forest Service has proven itself incapable of protecting wild lands, which is why we need national protection for our last remaining wild places. In Virginia and nationwide the agency has a history of steadily eroding roadless areas.
The popular Big Schloss roadless area in George Washington National Forest is a perfect example. When it was inventoried by the Forest Service in the 1970s, it contained about 37,000 acres. Now, after numerous logging projects, it is 21,000 acres. During the same period, the Elliot Knob and Crawford Mountain roadless areas in the George Washington National Forest have been diminished in size by 23 percent and 34 percent, respectively.
Current plans for the George Washington and Jefferson national forests allow logging and roadbuilding in many roadless areas, including such special places as Mill Mountain, Oliver Mountain, Peters Mountain and Dry River.
Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) has stated his opposition to these changes to the original roadless rule, and Sen. John W. Warner (R) has introduced legislation to turn the original regulation into law.
Without clear and explicit protection we will continue to lose the last vestiges of wild America. Americans who cherish wildlife and wild places should back efforts to secure lasting protection for our treasured national forests.
-- Steven Krichbaum
is the conservation director for Wild Virginia, a nonprofit organization dedicated to
the conservation of Virginia's natural heritage.