What others say: Forest politics

  • Wednesday, August 5, 2015 8:34pm
  • Opinion

On Jan. 5, 2001, during the final moments of Bill Clinton’s administration, the then-president announced the Roadless Area Conservation Final Rule.

Known thereafter as the Roadless Rule, the administrative policy has been bludgeon deployed against the economy of Southeast Alaska by barring access to natural resources and potential energy sources within significant areas of the Tongass National Forest.

On Wednesday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals narrowly upheld the Roadless Rule on a 6-5 vote, saying, in part, that the administration of George W. Bush erred when it effectively reversed the Clinton-era rule in 2003.

The Bush-era Forest Service, according to the court majority, shouldn’t have reversed the 2001 rule without providing a reasoned explanation for why it reached a different conclusion than the Clinton-era Forest Service, based on the use of the same “factual record.”

Opposing that view, the court minority’s opinion was that elections have legal consequences, and the Bush-era Forest Service did not act arbitrarily in heeding the Bush administration’s policy direction to amend the original Roadless Rule.

We tend to agree with the court minority on this one.

That the Clinton-era Roadless Rule was born of politics was referenced by Mike Dombeck when the then-chief of the Forest Service wrote this thought to agency employees on Jan. 5, 2011: “Both of these rules (the Roadless Area Conservation Final Rule and the agency’s road policy) were shaped by the involvement of literally millions of people.”

In other words, the Roadless Rule was shaped by the perceived public opinion of that day.

However, by the time the Roadless Rule was announced in early January 2001, the public already had voted in a different administration with a clearly different view than its predecessor. The Bush administration took office on Jan. 20, 2001.

Why bother having elections if those elected cannot act within the mandate and expectations of the public who elected them?

Dombeck’s letter contained other concepts of interest.

We see, for example, that the “transition” concept frequently being voiced now for the Tongass National Forest has been a core goal of the Forest Service for many years.

“Over the past decade or longer, the Forest Service has made the transition from emphasizing resource development and production to focusing on conservation, stewardship and restoration,” Dombeck wrote in that Jan. 5, 2001 letter.” The roads rule’s emphasis away from new road construction toward managing a transportation system, providing safe access through improved maintenance of the existing roads system is emblematic, of that shift.

“Similarly, completion of the roadless rule signifies the shift away from the timber controversies of the past over roadless entry and old-growth harvest,” Dombeck wrote.

We haven’t noticed much end of controversy here in the Tongass, watching the current furor over the Big Thorne timber sale that contains a relatively small amount of old-growth timber harvest.

As for maintenance of existing roads, the Forest Service sure has put a lot of effort into removing access to existing roads in the Tongass during the past decade or so.

And, what of economies? The only economics mentioned by Dombeck regarded the Forest Service itself.

“This year we received a budget increase of over 40 percent and plan to hire as many as 5,000 part-time and full-time employees,” he wrote in 2001.

Super! We’d be curious, though, to see how actual Forest Service employment in Southeast Alaska (and nationwide) has fared since Dombeck’s letter.

It’s easy to pick at something written years ago. Circumstances change, as can the political winds.

For the court to say that the Bush administration of 2003 was off the mark in reaching a different conclusion than the Clinton administration of 2001 — especially on a policy originally shaped by politics — seems, to put it kindly, a stretch.

The State of Alaska should continue to pursue its legal opposition to the Roadless Rule. The policy’s absence could allow for a positive transition to multiple use of public lands in the Tongass National Forest, and provide a glimpse of hope for a diversified economic future for Southeast Alaska.

— Ketchikan Daily News, July 31

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