U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on Friday announced a one-year renewal of protections that will give him sole authority to approve or disapprove logging or road projects in America's undisturbed national forests.
This decision will give the Obama administration more time to consider enforcement of the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule. This is an extension of the Obama administration's policy since taking office.
"While the courts continue to wrestle with roadless policy, I will continue to work with the USDA Forest Service to ensure we protect roadless areas on our National Forests," Vilsack said in a statement. "Renewing this interim directive reflects President Obama's commitment to protecting our forests by ensuring that all projects in roadless areas receive a higher level of scrutiny."
The roadless rule is the most significant forest conservation measure of this generation, according to Earthjustice, which has been involved in more than a dozen legal
actions to protect the Roadless Rule since 2001.
"Sixty million Americans depend on water that begins in our national forests, and most of that water begins in roadless areas," said Martin Hayden of Earthjustice. "We are grateful to Secretary Vilsack for renewing this directive and for defending the 2001 Rule in the 10th Circuit Court. A victory in the 10th will ensure the 2001 rule remains the law of the land, except for only the Tongass and the State of Idaho."
Protections Already Being Felt on the Ground
On Wednesday, the administration announced a new program in the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska intended to limit timber harvesting to second-growth trees within roaded areas near previously clear-cut sections. Old-growth timber in roadless areas will be off-limits.
The plan potentially provides a roadmap towards sustainable management while protecting the 17-million-acre rainforest. Besides creating second-growth timber jobs, the plan includes forest restoration, renewable energy projects, and the development of tourism and recreation around America's largest temperate rainforest.
Orion North Timber Sale Defense Ends
On Thursday, the Obama administration also ended legal efforts in support of a planned timber sale that would have bulldozed about six miles of new road into a roadless part of the Tongass National Forest near Ketchikan, Alaska.
The Orion North timber sale was blocked by an earlier court order won by Earthjustice holding that the logging plan violated the law. The administration had appealed that court order but reversed itself in yesterday's action. Conservation groups praised the Obama administration for its decision, which stops the money-losing Orion North timber sale, and hailed the move as a reflection of the Obama administration's commitment to end logging in roadless areas of the Tongass.
"We commend Secretary Vilsack and the Forest Service for their promise to keep old-growth forests in roadless areas of the Tongass--like this one--intact," said Tom Waldo of Earthjustice, who represented the coalition of groups challenging the sale. "Now we hope to see the administration make its commitment to protecting our roadless areas enduring by putting the roadless rule back in place on the Tongass. We are excited to see the administration recognize that the way to create jobs in southeast Alaska is not by clearcutting what is left of our old growth, but by moving forward with sustainable jobs in habitat restoration, road repairs, investing in trails and other recreation and tourism facilities, and looking at smart energy projects for the region."
The Orion North project was planned in an ecologically rich, roadless area at the heart of the Sea Level Creek watershed in the Tongass National Forest. It would have required six miles of new roads to clear-cut 4.3 million board-feet of old-growth forest.
Last December, the court held that a 1999 Environmental Impact Statement analyzing the effects of the timber sale was no longer valid because the costs to offer the timber sale have climbed dramatically while projected revenues have dropped precipitously over the last decade. The Orion North timber sale would have cost taxpayers $1.6 million to build roads into a pristine area for a timber sale that would generate only $140,635 from sale of the trees. The expense to taxpayers for the roads alone was nearly 11 times the potential revenues generated by the sale.