Dispatches, April 1998
It's the timber industry's oldest maxim: If you want to log a forest, first punch in a road. Or better yet, get the government to punch one in for you — which has, in fact, been standard operating procedure on U.S. Forest Service lands for over a century. Today 433,000 miles of logging roads tapeworm through our national forests, a network of gravel and dirt byways far longer than the interstate highway system. This gargantuan complex of roads, enough to circle the globe 17 times, has proved to be not only impossible to maintain, but also enormously damaging to fragile ecosystems, causing erosion, landslides, stream sedimentation, and habitat loss for numerous endangered species.
So in January, when Forest Service chief Mike Dombeck proposed an 18-month moratorium on the building of new logging roads on 33 million acres of Forest Service land — the boldest conservation initiative to come out of Washington in years — environmentalists gave a cautious thumbs up. After all, they pointed out, this was the Clinton administration, which has elevated waffling to an art form and proved adept at backing away from flashy policy pronouncements once the klieg lights have dimmed.
The Forest Service moratorium is characterized as a temporary "time out" to allow the agency breathing room in order to craft a comprehensive road-building policy. While the initiative protects some 130 forests across the country, it notably leaves out 26 major swaths of roadless real estate, including all Pacific Northwest stands west of the Cascades as well as Alaska's coveted Tongass National Forest, the largest temperate rainforest in the world. "This initiative has temporarily taken some of our forests off the board," says Marty Hayden, senior policy analyst for the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. "But it also drops some of the country's most significant forests on the cutting-room floor."
If such large-scale concessions were designed to appease pro-logging forces in Congress, the strategy has failed miserably. Indeed, Republican allies of the logging industry are aligning to lift the ban, with plans to introduce legislation as early as this month. Republican Senator Larry Craig of Idaho, for one, has been saber-rattling from the moment the decision was announced. "As far as I'm concerned," says Craig, "Mike Dombeck has declared war on my state."
While the administration is bracing for a fight on this issue, other signs seem to suggest that the era of subsidized logging roads, at least in pristine forests, may be drawing to a close. Just last year the Senate came within a single vote of cutting millions of dollars in funding for the Forest Service's $47 million road-building program. That was no small accomplishment. The timber interests have long counted on the Senate, whose members from western states wield a disproportionate share of power, to hold the line, but as the West becomes increasingly urbanized — and increasingly conservation-minded — the defense shows signs of cracking. Tellingly, the attack is being staged not just by environmentalists, but also by fiscal conservatives, who no longer want to bankroll the timber industry's attempts to get at the nation's last remaining old-growth stands.
"Building a road is the single most destructive thing you can do to a forest," says Steve Holmer of the D.C.-based Western Ancient Forest Campaign. "Once you put one in, there goes the neighborhood. It took a while, but this simple truth finally seems to have sunk in."