President Clinton can leave the nation a major legacy this month with final approval of a plan to spare nearly 60 million acres of roadless forest from future logging and road-building. For far too long the national forests have been the domain of commercial timber cutters who have logged virtually at will, using roads built for them by the federal government. It's been a sweet deal for the loggers--the nation has lost money on timber sales for years--and it's time for it to end. This is an opportunity for another dramatic step for the environment; the president should approve the plan developed by the U.S. Forest Service.
The proposal, affecting roadless areas of 5,000 acres or larger, was first put forward by the Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture a year ago. It was made even stronger in recent weeks after more than 1.5 million Americans responded to the environmental impact statement by urging tougher action, including a logging ban and the addition of the Tongass National Forest in Alaska in the plan, effective in 2004. It was a remarkable public response and produced the desired result. Even better would be immediate protection of the Tongass.
The proposal now increases the original 43 million acres to 58.5 million in 39 states, including 4.4 million acres in California. The national forest system covers 192 million acres, with 383,000 miles of roads, most of them built by the government to provide access for commercial loggers.
Opponents will charge that the government is locking up these lands, preventing the people from enjoying them and adding to the risk of uncontrolled wildfires. Neither is the case. Most of the lands are easily accessible from existing roads. Unlike wilderness areas, these regions will remain open to travel by off-road vehicles as well as by foot, bike and horseback. Hunters, fishermen and other recreational users will be welcome. Selective logging will be allowed where needed to reduce fire risk. Millions of other acres will remain open to commercial logging.
The economic loss is put at 1,300 jobs yielding $69 million in income, but that will be offset by jobs stemming from related recreation.
The action will protect endangered species and safeguard streams from the devastating silting caused by runoff from road construction and logging. And there are other benefits: For instance, what is it worth to walk into a woods that resembles the vast blanket of wild forest that once covered much of the United States?