THE WILD UINTAS AND THE ROADLESS INITIATIVE
Public opinion/behavior poll after poll, decade after decade, has shown Americans strenuous support for and understanding of the value of protecting roadless areas and designating wilderness. That support has grown and become more sophisticated in the past decade. Two recent polls show it more clearly than ever.
American Viewpoint, a Republican pollster, recently released a nationwide poll ( 3.2% margin of error) showing 76% of Americans support the roadless area protection proposal, with 54% strongly favoring it and only 19% opposing it! 54% of Americans believe that the U.S. does not have enough permanently protected national forest lands. Only 6% feel too much has been protected.
Another poll, conducted by the Mellman Group in July 1999, showed similar results with 63% of Americans believing not enough wilderness has been protected; only 6% felt too much has been protected. Both of these polls can be seen on the Heritage Forest website: www.ourforests.org
Many of us who have worked within the conservation community for decades feel the Clinton Roadless Initiative is what should have been initiated in the early 1970s with the first Roadless Area Review and Evaluation (RARE). The agency should have learned and set RARE II of the late 70s and early 80s in the proper motion, but didn't. Along came forest plans and a sort-of RARE III, but roadless areas were still brushed aside by far too many in the Forest Service.
So here we are. Another roadless initiative. This one seems hopeful because the premise is to seek both a positive inventory and mechanism to protect the identified roadless areas. But in a very profound way it is troubling that it has taken a policy initiative from the President and a directive from the Chief of the Forest Service to push, pull and prod the agency to recognize the vast importance, sensitivity and value of protecting roadless areas.
If the Forest Service has learned anything from the long dispute over the roadless issue, it is clear that all forests must be part of the process. It is clear that all roadless areas must be identified and offered the same kind of analysis, review and protection. And it is clear that the decision process must be open, available, and expeditious. The Forest Service and this process, despite the obvious controversy within some communities, in the broadest sense of that word, should not be held captive by those who don't want to understand the process, the value of roadless landscapes, or participate in a meaningful outcome. If the Forest Service maintains a professional decorum and steers a material effort, the lightning rod of the Clinton legacy will not be the beacon for this process, as some have suggested. The signpost will be the value of roadless areas. We thank those in the Forest Service who are now pushing to change a neglected past.
The size of roadless areas is of some obvious concern. Following general conservation biology and ecological principles, it can be argued that all roadless landscapes at the broadest level of discussion are of some import. It makes sense to protect roadless areas of 1,000 acres which are adjacent to other substantive roadless areas within other land management agency jurisdiction (or designated wildernesses, regardless of agency administration). Thus meaningful ecologically based science should play a major role in determining the value of smaller isolated roadless tracts.
Another consequential issue deals with the management of roadless areas. Roads/ways/trails constructed or utilized for motorized access, whether for timber harvesting, oil and gas exploration/leasing, grazing or recreational purposes (snowmobiles simply make the wild, roadless winter landscape one huge uncontrolled roadway) must not be allowed. If this is simply a no-timber-road initiative, it will have mimicry value only.
This initiative has the potential for being notably different from the past roadless inventories in that, after all of these decades, the science is more distinct and public concerns are clear, though not yet a consensus. A meaningful potential exists to compose the story of how and why these roadless landscapes are so important to the future of national forests.
But for us, roadless areas are not simply a policy concept. They are real places. Over 200,000 acres of roadless lands surround the High Uintas Wilderness, a 460,000 acre area, separated by the Mirror Lake Scenic Byway, from another 120,000 acres of the Mt. Watson/Lakes Backcountry. This represents almost 800,000 acres of the most extensive and wild mountainous terrain in Utah. It is significant.
(Ed Note: For a detailed description of the roadless country surrounding the Uintas, see the HUPC Newsletter/LYNX, Jan. and March 97, April, June, July, August, October, December 98, and April and June 99)