Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack issued a temporary order yesterday governing development in "roadless" areas of national forests, requiring all new projects to be approved by him personally.
Vilsack's order, which will be in effect for a year, is the latest turn in an eight-year-old battle over 58.5 million acres of pristine woods. President Bill Clinton made these areas off-limits in 2001, but President George W. Bush effectively reopened some in 2005. That led to a series of court cases that ultimately replaced the national policy with a patchwork of regional rules.
Vilsack, whose purview includes the U.S. Forest Service, did what environmental groups had been urging: call a "timeout."
Agriculture Department officials said that while the temporary order is in effect, the Obama administration and Congress will try to create a permanent policy on roadless regions. They said Vilsack's caseload is not expected to be large: Over the past eight years, one official estimated, 30 to 40 projects have been proposed in these areas.
"We're raising the level of scrutiny," said Chris Mather, a spokeswoman for Vilsack. "From this moment . . . we are going to make sure that our forests are protected in all projects we approve."
USDA officials said the order is not an outright ban: One said projects aimed at protecting watersheds, planting trees or stopping forest fires might be allowed. The official said it is unclear whether projects with a strictly commercial aim, such as logging or mining, will be allowed.
The order does not apply to national forests in Idaho, which recently developed its own policy on roadless areas.
The Forest Service's inventory of roadless regions includes about a third of the country's national forests. About 97 percent of them -- often never-logged old-growth forests -- are in the West. The ones in the East include small pockets of New Hampshire and the Appalachians that in most cases have regrown after being logged in past centuries.
Environmental groups say these areas serve as crucial natural filters for rivers and streams, key habitats for fish and animals such as grizzly bears, and "sinks" that take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Several applauded Vilsack's decision yesterday.
"It seems sort of process-y, but it's important, because it gets us back to a national treatment of roadless areas," said Kristen Boyles, a staff lawyer for the group Earthjustice. Obama officials "were handed a mess," she said, "and this will give them time to sort it out."
The Bush administration replaced Clinton's rule with one that allowed governors to decide which roadless areas in their states should continue to get protection. But environmental groups challenged that in various courts, which issued sometimes contradictory rulings.
In most of the country, USDA officials said, managers of individual forests have been deciding where to allow development. They did not permit much: One official said that about 70 miles of road had been built in these areas over the past eight years. And during that time, the official said, more miles of road were eliminated in these areas.
Jim Matson of the Utah Forest Products Association said he is glad that the Obama administration is working on a national policy because years of limbo have made it hard for businesses to plan.
"You've got communities and workers and capital tied up while -- basically, while the feds figure out what they want to be when they grow up," Matson said.
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