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Mixed messages on forest roads

Heading off down the trail of addressing vehicle travel in national forests, national policymakers recently took one step forward and two steps back.

The U.S. Forest Service recently made a welcome move to rein in off-road vehicle use of its lands.

At the same time, the Bush administration did the cause of forest stewardship no favor with a proposal to lift a national rule closing remote, roadless areas of forests to logging.



Environmentalists, while justifiably angered by the roadless proposal, might have shown a little more enthusiasm over the agency’s attempts to rein in off-road use by ATVs, dirt bikes and other vehicles.

The move represents a first-ever, systemwide attempt to crack down on what Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth has called one of the greatest threats to national forests.



Critics who say it doesn’t go far enough cite such issues as the need for more funding for enforcement. Yet it’s still a solid start. It proposes restricting many off-road vehicles to designated roads and trails in federal forests and grasslands. Designating where travel is permitted and prohibiting most cross-country travel will reduce environmental damage and creation of illegal trails, and ease conflict among visitors.

While the proposal isn’t perfect, it’s still a significant improvement over the status quo. Those wanting to see even more improvement might get a better reception from the Forest Service if they spent a little more time praising what’s good about it rather than focusing on shortfalls.

The roadless proposal is more worthy of criticism. It would roll back a Clinton administration attempt to prevent road construction on 58 million of the 191 million acres of national forest nationwide.

The disturbing part of the Bush proposal is that it instead invites state governors to take the lead in determining whether the Clinton ban should stay in effect in their states.

Unfortunately, most states with plentiful national forests tend to favor logging and other resource production on those lands, putting local economic interests ahead of larger-scale conservation interests. But national forests belong to everyone, not these states, and that’s why their management is appropriately handled at a federal level, with equal input from everyone.

While some politicians love to trumpet local control, it’s an irresponsible approach when locals are allowed to control what isn’t theirs alone.


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