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Internal Memos Signal Dissent in Forest Service

March 18, 2000|From Associated Press

RENO — Western senators, Republican governors and loggers aren't the only ones upset with President Clinton's push to protect large swaths of roadless areas in national forests.

Senior Forest Service officials are warning Chief Mike Dombeck about the pitfalls of the initiative that conservation leaders say would leave Clinton an environmental legacy unmatched since President Theodore Roosevelt.

Some say poor coordination between Washington executives and the regional offices is confusing staff members and the public. Others say the proposal squeezes already tight budgets.

One said the opposition is so strong, it could turn violent.

"The track and approach we are on is just flat wrong," Forest Service supervisor James Caswell said in an internal memo obtained by Associated Press.

Clinton announced his proposal in October as "one of the largest land preservation efforts in America's history." He said it would protect more than 40 million acres, or 20% of the total of national forests.

The president charged the Forest Service with developing a proposal that would determine which lands to include and "how best to preserve our forests' large roadless areas." A draft environmental impact statement, subject to public comment, is expected next month, and a proposal is expected by the fall.

Dombeck, a fisheries biologist from Wisconsin, has defended the preservation effort.

"If you think about the activities that occur on national forests, only a few really leave a permanent indelible mark on the landscape, and certainly roads are one of those," he said recently.

But he acknowledged in a letter to agency employees this week that there is internal dissension.

"Natural resource management has always been controversial and political," Dombeck wrote. "It has always been the responsibility of the Forest Service to respond to changing public values and new information."

Caswell, of Clearwater National Forest in Idaho and Montana, told Dombeck that of the more than 1,200 people who attended public hearings in Montana in December, an overwhelming majority opposed the proposal.

"It is important for you to understand that people here are walking on edge. There WILL be civil disobedience and possibly worse. The local people are that scared, threatened and frustrated," he wrote on Dec. 20.

The proposal prompted at least 18 public hearings in the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain region at a time when agency officials already were grappling with forest planning rules and revisions, said Lyle Laverty, a regional forester based in Denver.

"Perhaps most troubling is the fact that not one of these efforts has carried with it any supplemental funding. In fact, we are now facing the prospect of losing one-quarter to one-third of our planning dollars to support completion of the planning regulation and the roadless analysis," Laverty wrote to Dombeck on Dec. 13.

Asked earlier this month, Dombeck declined to say how much internal criticism he had received.

"These are issues that are decades old. . . . The approaches we've taken over the last couple of decades really haven't worked," he said at a Salt Lake City news conference.

Chris Wood, an aide to Dombeck in Washington, said he's talked with some of the critics.

"Sometimes people mistake the Forest Service for a monolith, which it is not," Wood said.

"Two years ago, 500 Forest Service employees wrote to the chief asking him to permanently protect roadless areas. Now we've got some other folks who are less comfortable with it," he said.

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