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Low impact expected from new roadless rule

| July 16, 2004 12:00 AM

By Roger Morris, Western News Publisher

A new roadless rule proposed by the Bush Administration will probably not result in dramatic changes in the Kootenai National Forest, according to the U.S. Forest Service spokesman.

The proposed rule would give governors the opportunity to petition the Forest Service to change the management of inventoried roadless areas in their states. However, the governors would have to make that request within an 18-month period following the effective date of the rule.

The Forest Service¹s Greg Kujawa said there are practical and political considerations that will have to be considered by both local and state politicians in making such a petition.

And there are physical and economic considerations as well.

Of the 639,100 acres of inventoried roadless area in the Kootenai National Forest, only 122,100 is suitable for timber harvest, Kujawa said. Those numbers are based on the existing forest plan but could change with the adoption of a new plan in the coming year.

³We do have restrictions,² he said. ³Some of it is physical. Some areas just aren¹t suitable to growing trees. Some of the areas are grizzly bear habitat, which limits our access. Then there are

watershed restrictions.²

The areas that the Forest Service have already roaded and developed for timber harvest in the KNF are already on the threshold of water restrictions and changes within the roadless areas could make it worse, he said.

The latest roadless rule may not mean much change at all, he said.

³Compared to where we are right now, we¹d probably not see a lot of new land opened to timber production,² Kujawa said. ³At face value, I don¹t see it having an impact on our timber harvest program.²

The administration¹s proposal does not mean a wholesale roll back of the environmental laws and wildlife protections currently in place, he continued.

³We still have all the environmental laws and budget constraints,² Kujawa said. ³We can¹t maintain all the roads we have now.²

Kujawa said he doesn¹t see anything in the rule that says roadless areas are being opened for development.

³I think what the Bush administration wants to do is get the decision-making down to the local level,² he said. ³This is an opportunity for local government to weigh in and provide local input to forest management.²

The administration sees it as an opportunity to dispel the continued controversy, policy concerns and legal uncertainty remaining from the Clinton Roadless Rule of January 2001, according to Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman, who announced the proposed rule at a press conference in Boise, Idaho.

The Clinton rule has been the target of litigation in Alaska, Idaho, Utah, North Dakota, Wyoming and the District of Columbia. In June 2003, a federal court struck down the 2001 roadless rule, concluding that it violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Wilderness Act.

One of the big concerns with the Clinton rule was a significant number of acres designated as roadless have already been roaded and timber harvested from the land.

³Our actions today advance President Bush¹s commitment to cooperatively conserving roadless areas on national forests,² Veneman said. ³The prospect of endless lawsuits represents neither progress, nor certainty for communities. Our announcements today illustrate our commitment to working closely with the nation¹s governors to meet the needs of local communities, and to maintaining the undeveloped character of the most pristine areas of the National Forest System.²

Veneman said that the Forest Service would reinstate an interim directive to conserve roadless areas that were afforded protection by the 2001 rule. The interim directive will remain in effect for a period of 18 months after the finalization of a new roadless rule being proposed.

Kujawa noted that in the KNF, the Forest Service has had no plans to log in the existing roadless areas.

³We are planning to do some prescribed burning in some IRAs,² he said.

After the rule is put into effect, the governors have an 18-month window to petition the forest for a change in management. Veneman said it is hoped that each state would develop a process from the local communities to the state capitals to make such recommendations.

The rule calls for a process that seeks input from the public as well as all interested parties.

That petition would be presented to the secretary of agriculture, and if accepted, the Forest Service would be required to work towards implementation.

And Kujawa points out that the final line of the rule reads, ³Nothing in this regulation shall be construed to provide for the transfer, or administration by, a state or local authority of any federally owned lands.²

Veneman is proposing the establishment of a national advisory committee to provide expert consultation for implementing the state-specific petition rulemaking process.

Kujawa said the Forest Service in the KNF is ahead of many national forests because it already includes management discussion and potential changes in the forest planning process.

³Everything within the boundaries of the IRAs are looked at and considered,² he said. ³I think it¹s working well and it¹s locally based. The governor can look over our shoulder and see the alternatives we¹re developing.²