Road Hogs

It was the night before Christmas ... and Bush opened the Tongass to logging.

Fri Jan. 9, 2004 3:00 AM EST

"If a tree gets cut in a protected forest the day before Christmas and no one's there to report it, does that mean they get away with it?"

Thus a spokeswoman for the National Environmental Trust, after the U.S. Forest Service announced on December 23 that 300,000 acres in the Tongass National Forest in southeastern Alaska -- the largest intact temperate rain forest on earth -- would be exempted from a Clinton-era rule banning the building of new roads in roadless areas of national forests. The rule change opens the acreage, which (surprise) is rich in old-growth trees, to logging.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Announcing controversial rule changes just before a weekend or holiday, when the press and public are otherwise preoccupied, is of course, a well-known trick -- but no less effective for that. So the answer is, yes, they do get away with it.

State and local politicians opposed the roadless rule on the grounds that it hurt the area's anemic timber industry, and the state brought suit to have the law overturned. Says an editorial in the Seattle Times, "The prospect of jobs for Alaska's slumping forest-products industry helped sell this rollback of roadless protections." There are only about 650 remaining timber-related jobs in Southeast Alaska, down from a decade ago when the logging industry employed about 5,000 people.

The rule change, the forest service said, "concludes a process begun on July 15, with the release of the proposed exemption for public comment, following settlement of the state of Alaska's lawsuit challenging the application of the roadless rule in Alaska."

"Two points are worthy of more examination in that statement," says an editorial in Florida's Ledger titled, "Flying Under Santa's Sleigh."

First, public comment: There were nearly a quarter-million comments received on the plan. An analysis of them by the Heritage Forest Campaign found fewer than 2,000 of them were in favor of exempting the Tongass from the rules that prohibited logging. Comments in support of continued protection outnumbered those favoring the forest service's plan by 100-to-1. So much for the weight of public comment.

Second, the Alaska lawsuit: While it might seem that this is one of those court-ordered rule changes, there's more to it than that. The roadless rule, implemented by the Clinton administration in early 2001, prohibited road building in nearly 60 million acres of undeveloped national forests nationwide. The rule was implemented after one of the most-extensive-involvement public-comment periods in history. ...

Clearly, the Bush administration hasn't given the rule any support in the courts and has been correctly labeled as not defending it."

The land in question, by the way, as well as being rich in old-growth trees, is a valuable wildlife habitat. No matter -- the administration's environmental priorities are well established. "The Bush administration is just catering to its friends in the timber industry by adopting this rule today," Tom Waldo, an attorney with Earthjustice, told AP.

That the decision is driven by something other than good economic sense is underscored by the well-attested reality that the timber industry is in terminal decline for reasons far larger than the inability of loggers to get at trees in the Tongass. Again, the Seattle Times:

"A sobering economic analysis by the state's Department of Labor paints a glum picture for Alaska's timber industry in a global market. ... If U.S. taxpayers are going to send money to Alaska, more people might be put to work for a greater return if the investment is made in tourism, recreation and commercial fishing. ... Paying to build and maintain more roads to cut more trees no one wants is suspect public policy."

But what is public policy next to political expediency? In Mother Jones September/October issue, Ted Williams wrote that "[i]f the Bush administration gets its way, the woods around Port Houghton [in the Tongass] and similar woods all across America will have roads hacked through them, much of their fish and wildlife sacrificed, and their trees cut and auctioned off to private corporations at a net loss to the federal government."

Well, the Bush administration is getting its way.