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roadless initiative is another federal taking

by Steve Weissinger

The Roadless Initiative being proposed and pursued by the U.S. Forest Service is, in my view, nothing other than an administrative taking by the federal government of more Western land.

Recently, at a meeting of the Douglas County Board of Commissioners, a representative of the USFS was asked how the agency defined a road.

“Quite frankly,” said the staff member from the Carson City ranger office, “we are not sure ourselves.”

It was an answer that didn’t surprise board members or citizens attending the meeting. And, at least, the USFS staffer was being honest. But the admission exemplifies just how ludicrous this whole USFS process actually is.

The administration and the Forest Service are attempting to change facts on the ground through a Clinton-like redefinition of long-standing administrative terms. The result is a chaotic mess.

President Clinton, Vice President Gore and Secretary of the Interior Babbitt have been the prime movers in this. They have now made it unclear whether a roadless area is an area with no existing roads, an area with roads that are not being maintained or an area with roads that no longer will be maintained.

And hundreds of thousands of roads all over the American West – and the areas those roads serve – are now at stake.

Once the roads are closed to public access – a pattern Nevadans have become all too familiar with, despite official denials – the areas they serve can be designated as “roadless.”

You can forget all the agreements that groups and private parties have negotiated with the federal government regarding different forest plans all over the West. You can forget wilderness release language. And never mind the law requiring the appropriate public comment periods.

This initiative is coming directly from Washington, D.C., and is rolling forward regardless of the wishes of the vast majority of the residents in western states. Not only is the Forest Service ignoring the comments of county commissioners, and has bypassed the legislative branch of government (Congress), but it has overridden thousands of public comments on 36 national forest plans in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Wyoming and Nevada.

Clinton, Gore and Babbitt have determined that they will, once again, attempt to take administratively what they have not been able to get through the constitutional process of winning Congressional approval. In Webster’s Dictionary, the word “fiat” is defined as “an arbitrary order or decree,” and this is how the current administration chooses to do the country’s business.

Here in the Silver State, the arbitrariness and slapdash nature of the administration’s action is translating into a direct attack on Nevada’s historically dominant industries. Becaue the administration’s proposed rules only address the effect of the roadless scheme on logging, its effects on mining, recreation and grazing in Nevada have been completely ignored.

The mining, grazing and agriculture industries are not only a vital part of Nevada’s heritage but also a major part of its people’s present-day livelihood. Add in the fact of the state’s current heavy reliance upon tourism – including the public use of public lands – and the Clinton administration’s roadless initiative is revealed as a blatant attack on the entire Silver State.

But there is yet another way in which Nevadans are being subjected to economic attack by this initiative – through the state’s connection to the Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project (ICBEMP).

The plan covers 144 million acres, including all of eastern Oregon and Washington, all of Idaho, western Montana and Wyoming and northern parts of Nevada and Utah. In addition, millions of acres of private land are also affected. The BLM and Forest Service have spent more than $35 million dollars in just the last four years drafting two massive Draft Environmental Impact Statements (DEIS) for the ICBEMP area. Virtually anywhere you reside in the West, these DEIS documents and the Northwest Ecosystem Plan affect you.

That’s because today merely using “ecosystem” jargon lets federal agencies in the West do virtually anything they want. A former chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Jack Ward Thomas, acknowledges this.

“I promise I can do anything you want to do,” says Thomas, “by saying it is an ‘ecosystem management’; it’s incredibly nebulous.”

Since any area within the ICBEMP can be designated as roadless due to some potential alleged impact on an ecosystem, the entire seven-state area will probably qualify for the USFS moratorium on the construction of any new roads and any maintenance of existing roads. This means that for two to three years at least, almost nothing will be permitted to be done on thousands of acres throughout the West.

Moreover, given the way the federal government is moving, there is a strong likelihood that many of those areas ultimately will be designated as wilderness. In addition to an effective taking against Americans who live near and use the public lands, this will mean that all the tens of millions of dollars spent on BLM and USFS plans will turn out to be money wasted.

The roadless initiative is only one aspect of what to me is a concentrated effort by the Clinton/Gore administration to further eliminate the public access and multiple use of public lands, even though they are a vital part the Western states’ heritage, economy and way of life.

This is one administrative taking for which we should not sit still.

– Steve Weissinger represents Douglas County Commission District 1.