Obama officials appear dangerously close to abandoning the President's key campaign promise to protect American wildlands. Candidate Obama said he would be "proud to support and defend" the landmark 2001 Roadless Rule. As President, he needs to move decisively to ensure his appointees follow through.
The 2001 Roadless Rule, the most popular federal regulation in history, halted virtually all logging and backcountry roadbuilding in 58.5 million acres of the United States' last best places. During the Bush years, though, the rule suffered from industry-inspired attacks and exemptions that weakened and limited its application.
President Obama's pledge raised hope the rule would be restored and enforced, and public wildlands would again be safe. However, on July 13th, with Agriculture Secretary Vilsack's blessing, the U.S. Forest Service approved a commercial timber sale in a pristine roadless area of the great Tongass rainforest. The Orion North sale will punch clearcuts and roads into an untouched old growth valley on the doorstep of Misty Fjords National Monument.
Technically, the Orion North timber sale does not violate the 2001 rule. The rule grandfathered it out, to help ease the region's transition away from wildland logging. But the transition period is long since over. The local economy is now centered on fishing, recreation, tourism, and other sustainable businesses that don't threaten old growth forests. And to add insult to injury, with timber prices in the doldrums globally, the federal government sold the sale for far less than the cost of preparing and supervising it.
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Orion North is destructive and unnecessary in its own right, but even more alarming for what it portends. The Forest Service has several more Tongass timber sales teed up, ones that unequivocally violate the Roadless Rule. And the timber industry won't stop pushing for still more unless and until the federal government makes clear the Bush era is over and says no-enough is enough.
Disturbingly, no Obama appointee has publicly embraced, or committed to implement, the 2001 rule. Secretary Vilsack, who oversees the Forest Service, announced in May that he would personally review any development proposal for national forest roadless areas. That was a welcome intercession at the time. But review alone won't get the job done. Now the question looms whether he will enforce the President's pledge or not. It's high time he did so.