Memos show internal criticism of Forest Service roadless plan
RENO, Nev. (AP) – Western senators, Republican governors, loggers and dune buggy drivers aren’t the only ones upset with President Clinton’s push to protect large swaths of roadless areas in national forests.
Senior officials within the Forest Service are warning Chief Mike Dombeck about the pitfalls of the initiative that conservation leaders say would leave Clinton an environmental legacy unmatched since Teddy Roosevelt.
A wide variety of active and retired Forest Service officials are criticizing the proposal on several fronts.
Some say the initiative is so poorly coordinated that staff members and the public are befuddled. Other say the proposal is a drain on already-tight budgets and will prevent other pressing programs from being carried out.
One said the opposition to new restrictions on access to the lands is so vehement that it could turn violent.
”Mike, I have never been so concerned about where an agency initiative will lead,” Forest Service Supervisor James Caswell wrote recently from the Clearwater National Forest in Idaho and Montana.
”The track and approach we are on is just flat wrong,” the 20-year veteran of the agency said in an internal memo obtained by The Associated Press.
Dombeck, a fisheries biologist from Wisconsin, has defended the effort to protect the last large chunks of national forests without roads.
”If you think about the activities that occur on national forests, only a few really leave a permanent indelible mark on the landscape and certainly roads are one of those,” he said recently.
But he acknowledged in a letter to all agency employees earlier this week that there is much dissension in the ranks.
”I know that many of you are concerned about the political undertone of the roadless dialogue,” Dombeck said in a ”letter from the chief” obtained by AP.
”Natural resource management has always been controversial and political….” he wrote Tuesday.
”It has always been the responsibility of the Forest Service to respond to changing public values and new information.”
Caswell told Dombeck that the overwhelming majority of the more than 1,200 people who attended public hearings in Montana in December oppose the protection proposal.
”I have never experienced such public disbelief and animosity directed toward any policy proposal as this one,” Caswell wrote on Dec. 20.
”It is important for you to understand that people here are walking on edge. There WILL be civil disobedience and possibly worse. The local people are that scared, threatened and frustrated,” he said.
Bob Vaught, the new supervisor of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, told a state legislative panel earlier this month that he, too, was aware of strong opposition to the plan in Nevada.
In another memo, the regional boss for the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain region complained about the drain on his budget.
The proposal prompted at least 18 public hearings in the region at a time agency officials already were grappling with forest planning rules and revisions, said Lyle Laverty, regional forester based in Denver.
”I am concerned about the apparent lack of coordination among your staffs in Washington and the lack of communication with my staffs here in the region,” Laverty wrote to Dombeck on Dec. 13.
”The consequences of scheduling so many meetings in such a short period of time have included overburdened employees and confused and weary publics.
”Perhaps most troubling is the fact that not one of these efforts has carried with it any supplemental funding. In fact, we are now facing the prospect of losing one-quarter to one-third of our planning dollars to support completion of the planning regulation and the roadless analysis,” Laverty said.
Retired officials once high in the ranks of the Forest Service also have sounded off against the roadless initiative.
”I find your proposal to restrict access to the remaining inventoried roadless areas both disturbing and unnecessary,” Dave Jolly wrote to Dombeck on Feb. 10.
”My reading of your notice of intent to file an EIS finds it so biased that it appears your decision has already been made,” said Jolly, former regional forester for the Northern Region.
”Your proposal would put a large part of these lands substantially beyond reach of an aging population,” he said.
Asked earlier this month, Dombeck declined to say how much internal criticism he had received about the roadless initiative.
”There are challenges in various parts of the country on these issues. I’d be the first to admit that,” Dombeck said at a Salt Lake City news conference.
”These are issues that are decades old. … The approaches we’ve taken over the last couple of decades really haven’t worked.”
Clinton announced his proposal in October as ”one of the largest land preservation efforts in America’s history.” He said it would protect more than 40 million acres – 20 percent of the total national forest lands.
The president charged the Forest Service with developing a proposal that would determine which lands to include and ”how best to preserve our forests’ large roadless areas.” A draft environmental impact statement subject to public comment is expected next month and a proposal by the fall.
Chris Wood, an aide to Dombeck at Forest Service headquarters in Washington, said he’s talked with some agency officials critical of the roadless effort.
”Sometimes people mistake the Forest Service for a monolith, which it is not,” Wood said.
”Two years ago, 500 Forest Service employees wrote to the chief asking him to permanently protect roadless areas. Now we’ve got some other folks who are less comfortable with it,” he said.
Dombeck said complaints about budget shortages are not limited to the roadless initiative.
”I don’t have a single Forest Service manager or regional forester that tells me, ‘I have enough money,”’ he said.
Money is one of the driving forces to halt new road construction, he said.
The agency faces an $8 billion backlog in repairs of the existing web of national forest roads that total more miles than the U.S. interstate system.
”We have a large infrastructure that is in effect crumbling,” Dombeck said. ”When you’ve got 380,000 miles of roads and you can’t afford to maintain them, you put the shovel down and stop digging the hole deeper.”