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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

The Ban on Roads

Air Date: Week of

stream/download this segment as an MP3 file


CURWOOD: As his term ended last month, President Clinton declared one third of all national forests off limits to further road building. The move drew praise from recreation enthusiasts and wilderness protectors. But Alaska Republican Senator Frank Murkowski warned the ban would cause great environmental and economic damage. The day he took office, George W. Bush started a review of the roadless ban, and some predict it may be eventually repealed. Producer Guy Hand recently went back to his home state of Idaho. There he found that logging roads both connect and divide our public lands and the people who live and work around them.

SHIRLEY: When we finally got the car back on the road, it got dried out enough and cooled off enough that it would start up again. But we took one wild ride down that mountainside.

(An appliance starts up)

HAND: Every now and then you have to go home to remember who you are, and how you got that way. For me, my Aunt Shirley's kitchen is a good place to start.

SHIRLEY: Oh, slow it down.

HAND: She's making breakfast, and her pancakes are a lot like my dad's were. A little lumpy, but hard to resist. And just like dad's and my granddad's before him, her love of dirt roads seems to be a family inheritance.

SHIRLEY: Anywhere there was a dirt road to take, we took it.

HAND: We all grew up in Idaho, where parts of the backcountry are as riven with roads as a T-bone steak is marbled with fat. And as a kid, I thought that was a good thing. Those roads were our dust-covered Internet, our connection to other communities, our path into Idaho's vast, beautiful, and mostly unpeopled public lands. But, even more than that, dirt roads were a symbol of freedom.

SHIRLEY: 'Cause these are all our lands. And if we are supposed to have freedom in this country, we should be able to go where we want to go.

HAND: But going where we want to go may not be as easy as it once was.

(News music and voice-over: "The outgoing president puts more forests off-limits. The incoming president is not pleased...")

HAND: Collectively, these never to be routed lands comprise a chunk of America bigger than the national park system. Any currently unrouted national forest land would stay that way, effectively banning logging and motorized recreation as well. And because Idaho contains more roadless land than any state but Alaska, over nine million acres, no state in the lower forty-eight will be impacted more by Clinton's initiative.

BERNARD: You know, how would the people back in Pennsylvania and Kentucky feel if we wanted to go back there and promote roadless area, which I think it would be a great deal for me to take my grandkids back East and see it as Daniel Boone saw it.

HAND: That's Tim Bernard, lifetime member of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a trail-riding advocacy group and one of several organizations that have gone to court to stop the roadless initiative. Like many in Idaho, he doesn't think people living east of the Mississippi have a clue about the West.

BERNARD: People that live in New York City don't even own cars. They don't have any idea of what Yellowstone National Park is. They don't have any idea that it takes pretty near a week to drive around the Frank Church Wilderness. And they want more areas.

HAND: Tim's is an argument familiar to me. Growing up in a lightly-populated state, with little representation in Washington, many of us Idahoans are all but genetically coded with a deep mistrust of the East. But Blue Ribbon Coalition member Steve Gunderson believes a ban on roads is only one part of a broader Eastern environmental agenda.

GUNDERSON: There are people out there that don't want anything going on in the forest except what they want. It's a means to an end and they don't care. You've heard issues of wilderness, hunting restrictions, endangered species, wild and scenic river, reintroduction of the wolf, the grizzly bear, and it goes on and on.

SKINNER: For somebody to come in and say that this is a bunch of easterners trying to protect a piece of landscape, I would assume that they don't know that all sorts of different folks are using it, and we've really changed the way that we view our landscape.

HAND: Dan Skinner is a fourth-generation Idahoan and Conservation Organizer for Idaho Rivers United.

SKINNER: And what the reality of the situation is, is that in some polls that we ran in Idaho earlier this year, better than 60 percent of Idahoans support protecting wilderness areas.

HAND: He and I are standing among old growth Ponderosa pines in the deadwood roadless area north of Boise.

SKINNER: Yeah, can you hand me that, please? (Unrolls a map)

HAND: Dan unrolls a map to show me Idaho's public lands road system. Virtually all of the roads we see are cut not for recreation or public transportation but for the timber industry.

SKINNER: That shows you what the roads on a typical timber sale are going to do. They don't punch one road in and bring all the timber to that road. What they do is build a series of roads on the contours every few hundred yards, so that they never have to drag a log more than about 200 yards. So what these other maps are, is just...

HAND: According to Dan, Idaho has ten times more logging roads than paved highways. In places on his map, the dirt roads are so dense it's hard to imagine room for trees or rivers at all.

SKINNER: This is not an urban area, right? This is forest land. And when you get back into these areas, you can see that the road densities are just phenomenal.


HAND: I follow Dan up a pine-covered hill to get a better view of the damage roads can do.

SKINNER: Well, we're looking down at the Deadwood River, and there's this road, one that's been here for quite some time, actually, that goes up about six, seven miles.

HAND: For a dirt road, this one doesn't look bad. It has concrete culverts, it's wide, it's smooth. Frankly, it's in better shape than the road in front of my house in California. So I ask Dan, what's the problem?

SKINNER: That road completely blew out about three years ago. About half of it basically washed away into the river. Tons of sediment, buried a bunch of bull trout habitat. And that's a relatively good road. The number one problem with pollution in Idaho rivers and creeks is sedimentation. Is dirt from logging roads. And that is how we ruin our wildlife habitat. That's how we kill our fish.

HAND: As 1995 gave way to 1996, a massive New Year's storm slammed into northern Idaho. The deluge that followed blew out hundreds of dirt roads in the Clearwater National Forest, silting up rivers, killing fish, and, some say, galvanizing opposition to logging and logging roads like nothing else before.

(Helicopter rotors. Man: "This helicopter view of a forest in northern Idaho shows an area that's been clear cut...")

HAND: I remember seeing the news footage on national TV. Horizontal roadcuts plunging into wide, vertical slashes of earth and debris.

(Man: "That's not all the damage. Here's a logging road washout. You can see a broken drainage culvert sticking out where the road washed out...")

HAND: Those TV images didn't jive with my notion of Idaho as a rugged, eternal place. I'd never driven a dirt road that wasn't in some way scarred by potholes, slumps, and slides. But like most westerners at the time, I grew up proud in the belief that this was a land big enough to handle it. But once you admit that frailty, as many of us now do, what's next?

(An engine starts up)

HAND: Bill Mulligan's answer is, build better roads. As President of Three Rivers Timber Company in Kamia, Idaho, he puts his faith in improved road building technology. As logs are loaded onto trucks behind us, he explains.

MULLIGAN: And there's no doubt about it. Roads are the number one issue. People say that the roads create sediment. Well, today we can build roads with backhoes on very stable landscapes, and we can put them in where we just don't produce sediment or muck sediment off of them any more. And so, there's a lot we can do to not only put in less roads, but those roads that we do put in have far less impact on the landscape than they ever did before.

HAND: Bill shakes his head in frustration at the thought of a ban on roadbuilding.

MULLIGAN: Here you have these magnificent tools and opportunities in front of you, and we're in the worst gridlock to be able to apply them to the landscape that we've ever seen.

HAND: Yet the Forest Service says the problem isn't a lack of new technology. The problem is money. Nationally, the service struggles to maintain 386,000 miles of public land roads, far more roads than the Interstate highway system. And with a half billion dollar repair backlog, many of those roads simply sink into disrepair. Roadless advocates say building more roads is irresponsible. They're also quick to point out that all the money spent building and maintaining national forest logging roads isn't paid for by the timber industry. It's paid for by U.S. taxpayers, whether they live in Idaho or New York City. Stephanie Bales works for the Intermountain Forest Association, a group that represents land and mill owners. She says money or not, we've got to build more roads.

BALES: Forest Service tells us there are twenty-two million acres of roadless land at high risk to catastrophic wildfire. And about eight million of the twenty-two are in Idaho and Montana.

HAND: Stephanie's father and grandfather worked for the Forest Service, so it's no surprise that she's steeped in the ethos of forest management.

BALES: In order to practice forestry, you have to have access to the places where forests need to be managed.

HAND: Stephanie says it's essential that timber experts get into the backcountry so they can thin the dense stands of fire-prone trees. Roadless advocates counter that it's just another threadbare excuse to cut more trees down. That idea really riles Stephanie.

BALES: You know, how much time and energy are we going to spend blaming each other? The science is in on this topic. The credible scientists in this country that look at forest ecology and fire ecology have spoken on the condition of western forests.

PINKHAM: Educated as a scientist, I've learned the fact that science is not always failsafe.

HAND: As a former forester and member of the Nez Perce tribe, Jamie Pinkham has spent time on both sides of the roadless divide.

PINKHAM: If you look at management activities of the past, they've had the opposite effect, damaging the resources to a point where we're struggling today to find new science, new technology, to reverse the errors that we've made in the past. So I would have to disagree that science is what's going to save the natural world. I think who's most capable of saving the natural world is nature itself.


HAND: Environmental activist Chuck Pezeshki and I climb hundreds of steps to a Forest Service lookout to see what he says is at stake if the roadless initiative is overturned by the Bush administration. In the lookout, we find Ranger Jack Crawford.

(Crawford speaks to someone on radio)

CRAWFORD: Checking in, Guy, and I have not seen any smoke on 62 ridge fire since about 1200 today.

(A voice on radio replies)

HAND: He's spent twenty-seven summers scanning the horizon for fires while living in this single, 14 by 14 glass-walled room.


HAND: Wind moans through the windowpanes.

CRAWFORD: And I have proved this is all you need, this is all the space you need. You've got your bedroom, you've got your den, you've got your kitchen...

HAND: But what is most impressive is the view outside.

PEZESHKI: Those are the crags, aren't they?

CRAWFORD: That's the Selway Bitterroot ...

PEZESHKI: Is that the crest?

HAND: In every direction we see forest, mountain, and nothing more. Chuck Pezeshki.

PEZESHKI: What's so amazing about this country right here is that it has what ecologists call interior habitat, which is we have deep forest that's far away from any road at all. So there's very little of this left in the entire United States. And who does that matter to? Well, it really matters to species like wolverine and lynx, that cannot take human disturbance. A wolverine sees a person, it runs away.


PEZESHKI: But you need this kind of big, wild country, otherwise they don't make it.

HAND: Chuck is hopeful that President Bush won't overturn the roadless initiative.

PEZESHKI: A million people commented on this proposal. If you're a politician, how can you ignore the wishes of a million of your citizenry? The notion that George Bush and his cronies are going to be able to unravel this whole thing is just ludicrous.


HAND: The three of us stare into a sea of trees and I realize that once again roads have led me into the Idaho backcountry. Home. Yet this time, they've also led me somewhere else. Into the age-old question of dominion. Everyone who's talked to me about the roadless initiative, whether using the language of philosophy, ecology, technology, or just plain anger, is really talking about dominion. About how deep into what's left of the natural world humanity should plunge. For Living on Earth, I'm Guy Hand.

(Music up and under: Idaho, "Scrawny")



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