A bipartisan group of more than 130 members of Congress (House & Senate) have joined together in support of legislation to protect 58.5 million acres of wild national forest land in 38 states by codifying the Roadless Area Conservation Rule. The roadless rule administratively identified areas on our national forests that have not been dissected by roads and established conservation based management guidelines for those areas. This bill will ensure that the rule endures against efforts to open these lands to development and last through changing administrations. The bill was introduced by Representative Jay Inslee (D, WA) and Senator Maria Cantwell (D, WA).
The roadless areas protected under the rule are fundamental to the recovery of imperiled species that need undeveloped and intact habitat to survive. Testimony this week in Congress on the road and trail system on our national forests highlighted an increase in wildlife presence in the Carson National Forest in New Mexico once road system management was reevaluated and improved, leading to the closure of roads that were no longer necessary, that caused environmental harm, and that were too expensive to continue to effectively maintain.
Beyond wildlife, there are many additional benefits we gain from roadless areas. National forest lands provide drinking water to tens of millions of Americans – high road density and poorly maintained roads lead to sedimentation and water quality degradation that directly affects downstream communities. National forests also generate $100 billion in annual revenue, and support an estimated 223,000 jobs in rural communities.
The roadless areas established by the Forest Service ten years ago should not be confused with big “W” Wilderness areas, which can only be designated by Congress. Wilderness areas are managed under strict rules that don’t allow any motorized uses or machinery. Roadless designations are much more flexible; they require management for conservation but are not a complete ban on road building or economic utilization. For instance, the rule allows new roads to be constructed in specified circumstances, such as to fight fires or when other natural events threaten public health and safety. It also does not close any existing roads or trails and allows full access for recreational activities such as backpacking, camping, hunting and fishing. The legislation would not affect the right of access to property owned by states or individuals, and would allow logging of certain timber to reduce the risk of wildfires and the expansion of oil and gas operations within existing or renewed leased areas.
In the face of unprecedented attacks on our public lands by those that would sell them or open them up for unlimited development, to have more than 130 members of Congress stand up and declare their support for the continued protection of these valuable forests is a powerful statement.
Defenders is part of a conservation community press release announcing the introduction of the bill.