Move to protect national forest roadless areas praised

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF
khughes@starhq.com

   Legislation which would protect nearly 60 million acres of pristine national forest lands from logging, mining and drilling was introduced Monday in the U.S. House of Representatives.
   The National Forest Roadless Area Conservation Act, introduced by Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., and Sherwood Boehlert, R-New York, would protect roadless areas except in cases where logging is necessary to preserve forest health, to improve habitat for endangered species, or to reduce fire danger. Under the legislation, the lands would remain open for recreational use including hunting, fishing, camping, hiking and the use of snowmobiles and dirt bikes.
   The Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition in Knoxville along with the Wilderness Society and conservation groups throughout the southeast applauded Tennessee Reps. Rob Clement, D-5th, Bart Gordon, D-6th, and Harold Ford, D-9th, for joining the more than 160 co-sponsors of the bill.
   Susan Andrew, co-writer of "Return the Great Forest: A Conservation Vision for the Southern Appalachians" and an ecologist for the forest coalition, said, "This bill honors the will of the American people who have been steadfast in their support for strong protection for our nation's wild forests. Representatives Clement, Gordon and Ford and their colleagues are to be commended for sponsoring this important and welcome piece of legislation."
   The Roadless Rule, which has yet to be implemented, was adopted following years of analysis and more than 600 public meetings nationwide. To date the Forest Service has received more than 2.2 million comments in favor of strong roadless area protection -- nearly 10 times greater than that of any other rule in federal rulemaking history, according to the coalition. In Tennessee alone, 97 percent of the 11,147 comments received were in support of roadless protection.
   National forest makes up approximately 2.6 percent of Tennessee's land mass, with approximately 12 percent of that area inventoried as roadless.
   The bill would protect portions along the Unicoi Mountains, Bald Mountain and Iron Mountain in Carter County as well as Upper Bald River, Flint Mill Gap and additions to Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness, Bald River Gorge Wilderness and Big Laurel Branch Wilderness.
   Without the Roadless Rule the areas could be opened to road construction and logging. The Bush administration has yet to uphold the Roadless Rule despite assurances to the contrary from Attorney General John Ashcroft during his confirmation hearings, the coalition says.
   In the last year, the administration has issued a number of directives undermining the rule, including procedures that abolish existing safeguards for roadless areas and allow for more road construction in national forests. More than 30 large-scale timber sales in Alaska's Tongass National Forest, as well as controversial logging, oil and gas drilling projects already are threatening environmentally sensitive areas, according to the coalition.