Shortly before the end of the Clinton Administration, the Forest Service issued its Roadless Area Conservation Rule (Roadless Rule) to govern the management of the 58.5 million acres of inventoried roadless areas located within the national forests. Described by the Chief of the Forest Service as “one of the most significant conservation efforts in United States history,” the Roadless Rule prohibited most road construction and timber harvesting activities in roadless areas as a means of sustaining the values of those areas “now and for future generations.” Within a day of the new President’s inauguration, however, the Bush Administration postponed the effective date of the Roadless Rule so that the new Administration would have the opportunity to review it. Six months later, the Forest Service published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking in which it asserted that long-term resource management decisions are more appropriately made through local forest planning decisions than through implementation of a uniform, nationally applicable rule. In mid-2004, the Forest Service followed up that notice by publishing a proposed rule that would replace the Clinton-era Roadless Rule with an approach that would allow development within roadless areas, to the extent permitted by current land-use plans, unless a state governor petitions the Secretary of Agriculture for protective regulations and the Secretary decides to approve such a petition.
This Article compares the Clinton and Bush Administrations’ approaches to the management of roadless areas within the national forests as reflected in the Roadless Rule, its proposed replacement, and related initiatives. The Clinton Administration’s approach reflected a consistent effort to balance the desire to afford access for multiple uses of the national forests and the goal of ensuring long-term protection for valuable resources such as clean water and adequate wildlife habitat. That approach sought to shift the agency’s emphasis from building roads to facilitate timber harvesting and other resource extraction to providing environmentally sound access and improved stewardship. The Bush Administration’s developing approach, by contrast, emphasizes the protection of forest resources from natural disasters, but not from human activities such as road construction and timber harvesting. It also places a stronger emphasis on the protection of private property rights in and near the national forests than it does on the protection of ecologically valuable resources. This Article criticizes this shift in focus, along with the Bush Administration’s apparent willingness to sacrifice long-term ecological sustainability and to endorse a reduction in environmental evaluation under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of road-building and related activities in roadless areas, as an ill-advised and short-sighted weakening of the Roadless Rule’s resource protections for those areas. Finally, the Article reviews a series of lawsuits in which litigants have challenged the validity of the Roadless Rule, concluding that promulgation of the Rule violated neither NEPA nor the Wilderness Act of 1964. The Article concludes that the direction in which the Bush Administration is pushing roadless area management is aligned more with resource extraction and development and less with natural resource preservation, which will likely result in fewer roadless areas remaining roadless.