Michigan Land Use Institute

MLUI / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / Bush Swings Axe at Popular Forest Protections

Bush Swings Axe at Popular Forest Protections

Proposal would hand federal land decisions to governors

August 1, 2004 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


The Ottawa National Forest in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula shelters one of the state’s rare stands of old-growth trees.

The Bush administration’s proposal to change a rule that currently forbids road building in approximately 60 million acres of national forests is stirring controversy within Michigan conservation and environmental circles. The proposed rule change, announced on July 12, would grant new powers to governors to manage some of the wildest parts of national forests but leave final decisions to the U.S. secretary of agriculture. The rule change could affect the future of as many as 16,000 acres of untouched land in two of Michigan’s three national forests.

Bush administration officials say the change would allow more local participation in federal decisions regarding national forests. But critics of the proposed rule change say it would make the process more confusing and less transparent, and could place the fate of vast swaths of publicly held land in the hands of just a few officials. They add that it would also exclude much of the country from meaningful participation in decisions about national forest land. 

The rule that the Bush administration is attempting to change was promulgated in the final days of the Clinton administration. The Clinton-era rule prohibits road construction and reconstruction as well as timber harvesting in roadless areas in all national forests in the United States. It attracted a record 1.6 million formal comments; 95 percent of them favored it. But the Clinton rule continues to be strongly opposed by the governors of most Western states, where most national parks and roadless lands are located, and where President George W. Bush enjoys some of his strongest political support.

The Bush administration proposal released on July 12 would sharply reverse the Clinton-era rule and extend roadless protection to a national forest area only when the governor of the state where the forest is located specifically requests it. Yet any such request would be subject to approval by the U.S. secretary of agriculture. Many observers say that the new rule would make it easier to build or restore roads within roadless areas, and harder to defend those areas against the resource extraction that such roads allow.

“This whole proposal is really a bizarre sham,” said Anne Woiwode, director of the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club, “because the decision-making is still with the secretary of agriculture at the federal level and there’s an illusion that this is actually giving authority to the governors.”

Michigan’s Many Forests, Many Roads
Michigan has only two roadless areas within the 2.8 million acres that make up its three federal forests. Both areas are in the Upper Peninsula — in the Fiber area of Hiawatha National Forest and in the Norwich Plains area of the Ottawa National Forest. Although the two areas amount to only about 16,000 acres, less than 1 percent of Michigan’s federal forestland, wildlife experts say that they play an important role in habitat preservation, a key element in the fight to preserve endangered species.

Ken Arbogast, a public affairs officer at the Huron-Manistee National Forest, in the state’s Lower Peninsula, says that too many roads can reduce a forest’s ability to provide viable wildlife havens. Roads fragment the habitats that many species depend on for survival, form barriers to some species’ grazing and migratory patterns, and serve as entryways for other, unwanted, possibly invasive species and predators.

Mr. Arbogast pointed out that the extensive network of roads in the Huron-Manistee National Forest, the home to a half-dozen threatened or endangered species, has already made forest fragmentation a top concern there. He said that, between state, county, local, and forest service-managed roads, “you could drive a two-wheel-drive vehicle to within a half-mile of more than 90% of the forest. We’re very heavily roaded.”

Such comments are also a fair description of most of the other national forests in Michigan. They contain 10,000 miles of roads crisscrossing wetlands, hardwood forests, and pines. Mr. Arbogast explained that, besides the habitat damage the roads themselves represent, the human activity they allow — mining, logging, oil drilling, and off-road vehicle use — can also be very harmful. As an example, he described a popular sport called “mud-bogging”— driving a full-size pick-up truck or SUV through a wetland. He said that this activity often introduces invasive species, pollutes wetlands, and creates new, unauthorized trails that can further spread and accelerate damaging activities.

And while it does not appear that Governor Jennifer M. Granholm would support new development in Michigan’s tiny remaining roadless areas, critics of the proposed rule change point out that another governor at a future time could.

Whose Forest Is It?
These observers also point out that, even though the potential consequence of the proposed rule in Michigan would be comparatively small because the state has so few remaining roadless areas, it would also have a much larger, albeit subtler effect: Disenfranchising Michigan citizens and much of the rest of the nation from participation in the management of federal lands in other states. Marvin Roberson, a forest policy expert for the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club, points out that national forest lands have, by definition, always belonged to every American, regardless of their location.

Mr. Roberson says that by requiring governors, not the federal government, to deal with road building and other activities in national forests, the Bush administration would change that long-established formula. Effectively, the proposed rule would place major decision-making power for almost all roadless areas in the hands of 12 people who are accountable to less than one-fifth of the U.S. population. That is because 97 percent of all national forest roadless areas are located in 12 Western states that contain just 22 percent of the U.S. population. 

“Under the proposed rule,” Mr. Roberson said, “the governor of the state can petition to have roads put through roadless areas owned by the whole country. And yet that governor is only answerable to people in his state.” In this way the proposed rule change represents a huge shift of power over such federal lands away from the country as a whole to the West.

Ms. Woiwode says such a change would violate the philosophy behind the establishment and management of the national forest system, which was inaugurated in 1906 by one of George W. Bush’s  Republican predecessors, President Theodore Roosevelt. 

“One of the remarkable things about our national system of public lands,” she said, “is that it recognizes that even if you live in an extremely crowded urban area, you have an interest in the most remote public lands that exist and your interests should be respected.”

Feds Tout, but Greens Doubt, Local Control
Officials of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which includes the U.S. Forest Service, defend the Bush proposal on the grounds that it would allow greater flexibility in responding to state and local needs. They also say that those “closest to the ground” are best equipped to address a variety of environmental, recreational, and economic concerns in their management of roadless areas. Julie Quick, a media specialist for USDA’s Department of Natural Resources, said that, “our hope would be that this would pass legal muster so that we can ensure that these areas are protected and work with the states to meet their needs.”

When asked if she saw any dangers in allowing states to manage national lands, she replied that, “the federal government would remain involved with the state.” She was reluctant to give details about the federal government’s exact role in the decision-making process, although another USDA official confirmed that the U.S. secretary of agriculture would have final authority.

But this claim bothers many environmentalists, who see the proposed arrangement as at least somewhat at odds with all the fanfare that surrounded its announcement. They point out that the Bush administration trumpeted the new rules as promoting states’ rights, empowering governors, increasing local input, and replacing what it insisted were the Clinton administration’s one-size-fits-all rules with a more flexible, locally sensitive approach.

Yet, those critics add, the new Bush administration proposal would actually eliminate a clear set of rules that were designed to protect undeveloped public lands and that had gained almost unanimous public support. And, they say, it would replace them with an opaque and largely unregulated process that would concentrate power in the hands of a few governors and a federal official who would have broad discretion and limited accountability in managing roadless areas.

Carolyn Kelly, a student at the University of Chicago, is writing this summer as a Jeff Metcalf Fellow on the Michigan Land Use Institute's news desk. She can be reached at carolyn@mlui.org

Michigan Land Use Institute

148 E. Front Street, Suite 301
Traverse City, MI 49684-5725
p (231) 941-6584 
e comments@mlui.org