Protected roadless forests celebrate anniversary, but threats loom

Rogue-Winema National Forest Brown Mountain Roadless Area. Courtesy USFS.

A decade after it was first adopted by the U.S. Forest Service, the Roadless Area Conservation Rule has proven to be remarkably successful in protecting the 58.5 million acres of national forest roadless areas from road building and logging. Only about 75 miles of road building has occurred in the roadless areas — far less than the Forest Service had predicted a decade ago — and just a miniscule fraction of the unroaded forests has been logged, mostly in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest.

Eight years of unrelenting legal, political, and on-the-ground attacks during the Bush administration have taken their toll on the Roadless Rule, however — especially in Idaho and Alaska, which together hold more than one-quarter of all national forest roadless areas.

While the Obama administration has generally been very supportive of the Roadless Rule, roadless areas continue to face numerous threats from mining, oil and gas drilling, off-road vehicles, and other harmful activities. In addition, conflicting court decisions have created uncertainty about the Roadless Rule’s legality, which could be resolved very soon by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. Public support and involvement will be crucial to ensure that national forest roadless areas continue to provide a multitude of environmental and economic benefits to society.

With the Roadless Rule’s Jan. 12 tenth anniversary in mind, The Wilderness Society has issued a report outlining the successes of the Rule, the risks that roadless forests face and what’s at stake in the 10th Circuit case. 

Spotted owl in Moose Creek Roadless Area in the Willamette National Forest, Oregon. Photo by John and Karen Hollingsworth.A recent study by the Forest Service, meanwhile, shows that “recreation activities on national forests and grasslands have helped to sustain an estimated 223,000 jobs in rural areas and contributed approximately $14.5 billion annually to the U.S. economy.” National forests also play a vital role in protecting supplies of clean drinking water — holding the headwaters that provide drinking water to millions of people across the country. In addition, roadless forests preserve high-quality habitat for many kinds of fish and wildlife.

The Roadless Area Conservation Rule was adopted by the U.S. Forest Service on Jan. 12, 2001, after the most extensive public involvement in the history of federal rulemaking. The Roadless Rule generally prohibited road construction and timber cutting in 58.5 million acres of inventoried roadless areas, covering about 30 percent of the National Forest System. Since then, the rule has been the subject of numerous legal challenges and administrative attacks seeking to reverse it and open the lands up to unneeded timber production and other destructive activities.

Currently, the 2001 Roadless Rule is in effect nationwide except in Idaho and in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. Thus, the Forest Service may not undertake activities that violate the Roadless Rule on 40 million out of the 58.5 million total acres of inventoried roadless areas. A lawsuit by The Wilderness Society and other conservation groups challenging the Idaho exemption is pending in federal court. Roadless area projects in the Tongass National Forest are subject to approval by the Secretary of Agriculture.

Learn More

Learn more about the history of the roadless rule:

Rogue-Winema National Forest Brown Mountain Roadless Area. Courtesy USFS.
Spotted owl in Moose Creek Roadless Area in the Willamette National Forest, Oregon. Photo by John and Karen Hollingsworth.