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California and the West

Proposal Would Curtail Logging in National Forests

Environment: U.S. agency calls for 18-month halt to construction of logging roads in many areas. Timber industry and its backers in Congress criticize plan.


As part of an emerging strategy to cut costs and curtail environmental damage, the U.S. Forest Service called Thursday for an 18-month halt in building new logging roads in roadless areas of most national forests.

The moratorium would prevent logging, at least for now, on millions of acres in 130 national forests. Much of the affected area is in Idaho and Montana. The two states were targeted because their congressional delegations have been unable to agree on wilderness legislation that would make many roadless areas off limits to logging, mining, oil and gas drilling and other commercial activities.

The proposed moratorium drew immediate criticism from timber industry officials and their supporters in Congress.

Environmentalists, who have long lobbied for a ban on road building in roadless areas, welcomed the plan. But they criticized loopholes that would exempt a number of forests in Northern California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska's Tongass National Forest.

Despite intensive logging, the Tongass remains the world's largest intact temperate rain forest.

The exemption would leave about one-third of California's national forest land unprotected. However, Forest Service officials said Thursday that very little logging is planned for roadless areas of the state's exempt forests during the next two years.

The moratorium would give the Forest Service time to craft "a long-term forest policy for road-less areas so we can better decide where to put new roads and decommission old ones," said Chris Wood, a spokesman for Forest Service chief Mike Dombeck. "There is no more expensive place to build a road than in a roadless area," said Wood. "Roadless areas usually have steep slopes, unstable soils and the timber is often of poor quality or the timber companies would have gotten it out a long time ago."

The proposal, which drew immediate criticism from some members of Congress, is subject to a 60- to 90-day public review, after which the Forest Service can put the moratorium in place without congressional approval. However, Congress does control the agency's budget.

The agency indicated Thursday that its long-term intent is to build fewer and environmentally safer forest roads.

The proposed moratorium was roundly condemned by several Republican senators from Western states, labor organizations and the forest products industry.

"Today's announcement could eventually shut down, for the first time, every acre of our national forests for recreational, forest health and harvesting purposes," said a statement from the American Forest & Paper Assn.

Industry representatives pointed out that the only private capital for taking care of forest roads comes from the commercial sale of logs cut in the national forests.

At the same time, industry officials conceded that the money the Forest Service receives from the industry is not enough to bring the existing network of 373,000 miles of forest roads into compliance with environmental laws.

The Forest Service said that current funding has allowed it to take proper care of only about 40% of the existing roads.

"It doesn't make a lot of sense for us to be building new roads when we can't afford to adequately take care of 60% of the ones we already have," Wood said.

The agency faces a $10-billion backlog in maintenance costs. Agency officials say the proposed moratorium would allow them to begin taking care of that backlog while determining which of the existing roads are necessary for logging, recreational activity and use by residents.

"The point is many forest roads have outlived their usefulness and ought to gated off and returned to a natural state," said one Forest Service official.

Moreover, there are another 60,000 miles of forest roads, sometimes referred to as "ghost roads," that the Forest Service did not build and does not maintain.

Vital to the timber industry but costly to taxpayers and often devastating to wildlife, logging roads have caused massive erosion particularly harmful to streams, fish and water quality.

Wildlife experts believe that much of the steep decline of Pacific Coast salmon stocks is attributable to erosion from logging roads and changes in water temperature after heavy logging along stream banks eliminated shade.

Agency officials defended the decision to exempt about 20 national forests from the moratorium, contending that all of them had been subject to careful environmental review designed to protect the most naturally sensitive areas.

In the case of the Tongass National Forest, where up to 1,100 miles of new roads could be built in roadless areas over the next 10 years, the agency said an appeals process is in place that could result in scaled-down logging activities.

But although the agency said that the moratorium will lead to only about a 7% reduction in logging over the next two years, timber industry officials argued that the figure is closer to 75% in the affected forests.

Industry spokesmen said that language in the proposal affording protection to "any area because of unique ecological or social values" could allow the Forest Service to extend the moratorium to virtually any part of a national forest, not just roadless areas.

"It is the most strident position by any administration ever to move toward barring the harvesting of trees on national forests," said one industry representative.

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