Our Natural Legacy: The Value Of America's Roadless National Forests

Executive Summary

After decades of scientific inquiry, 600 public hearings, and a record 1.6 million comments, the Clinton administration enacted the Roadless Area Conservation Rule in January 2001 to protect 58.5 million acres of wild national forest land from most commercial logging and road-building. The Roadless Rule ensures that our national forests will continue to provide clean drinking water for millions of Americans, wildlife habitat, endless recreational opportunities, and other important values. The rule also allows the U.S. Forest Service to address the estimated $10.3 billion backlog in needed roads maintenance instead of using taxpayer dollars to build new roads.

The American people have spoken in favor of protecting roadless areas within our national forests. If the volume of their voices could be measured by the comments already sent to the Clinton and Bush administrations, the roar would be deafening. Prior to the 2004 comment period, Colorado residents had submitted 36,331 comments in favor of protecting the state's 4.4 million acres of roadless land.

Fully understanding the public's dedication to protecting roadless areas requires looking at their myriad economic and ecological benefits:

• Sixty million Americans rely on drinking water from the national forests. Roadless areas, for their pristine and road-free condition, provide some of the purest of that water. In the Rocky Mountain Forest Service Region, which includes Colorado, drinking water is worth $241.5 million annually.

• Non-motorized recreation has become more and more popular over time as Americans participate in everything from bicycling to hunting in roadless areas. In 2001, 1.5 million Colorado residents took part in hunting, fishing, and wildlife-watching, contributing $2.0 billion to the state economy.

• America's wildlife has seen much of its habitat lost to development in recent decades. Some of the most unspoiled habitat for hundreds of threatened, endangered, and declining species is found in roadless areas. Colorado's national forests are home to 23 at-risk species that could be harmed by destruction of roadless areas.

Despite the enormous benefits of national forests, historically, their value has been pegged to the timber products they provide. The Forest Service, however, has sold national forest land to timber companies at such low cost that the agency loses millions of dollars each year.

National forests are federal lands that belong to all Americans and deserve federal protection. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has proposed repealing the Roadless Rule and replacing it with a meaningless process that allows governors to seek protections for roadless areas in their states - or seek logging, mining, and drilling for these pristine forests instead. Even if a governor seeks protections, the Forest Service could still refuse the proposal.

In addition to repealing the Roadless Rule, the Bush administration has proposed a dramatic change in the way all of our national forests are managed. At issue are new regulations for the National Forest Management Act, the law that requires each of the 155 national forests to have a management plan in place. The draft regulations the administration proposed in December 2002 would weaken environmental and wildlife protections and limit the public's ability to participate in decisions that affect our national forests. Moreover, the Bush administration has already pushed through numerous harmful policies, including the so-called Healthy Forests Restoration Act, which increases logging under the guise of fighting forest fires.

Before finalizing the proposal to repeal the Roadless Rule, the administration has two choices: it can continue pandering to timber companies, mining companies, and energy companies that stand to make millions in the short term at taxpayers' expense, or it can choose to heed public opinion and preserve roadless areas to ensure that generations to come enjoy the same benefits that we have.

The right decision seems clear. Without question, roadless areas are one of the nation's greatest natural assets; their ecological and economic value is too great to sacrifice.