Air Date: Week of January 16, 1998
Each year, the U.S. Forest Service loses millions of dollars subsidizing private timber operations in national forests. Much of the red ink is caused by a government program that builds roads into remote areas so that trees can be easily cut and trucked to mills. But the Clinton Administration will soon announce a temporary halt to the practice that some environmentalists and fiscal conservatives have called a textbook case of corporate welfare. The ban may face its strongest opposition in Congress from lawmakers in timber-rich western states. Joining us to talk about the road building moratorium is Jim Simon, a Seattle Times reporter who's been covering the issue. He joined us from the studios of KUOW in Seattle.
KNOY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy, sitting in for Steve Curwood.
Each year the US Forest Service loses millions of dollars subsidizing private timber operations in national forests. Much of the red ink is caused by a government program that builds roads into remote areas so that trees can be easily cut and trucked to mills. But the Clinton Administration will soon announce a temporary halt to the practice that some environmentalists and fiscal conservatives have called a textbook case of corporate welfare. the ban may face its strongest opposition in Congress from lawmakers in timber-rich western states. Joining us to talk about the roadbuilding moratorium is Jim Simon, a Seattle Times reporter who's been covering the issue. Jim, thanks for joining us.
SIMON: Great to be here.
KNOY: Describe the ban. How extensive is it, and how long is it supposed to last?
SIMON: Well, first off, the final details of the ban have not been announced yet by the Forest Service. And in fact, there's a lot of tousling still going on over what's actually going to be in that. I think the basic outline of that will be a suspension of road building in to so-called roadless areas of the National Forest. Areas of over 5,000 acres. And it will be a moratorium that most people think will last a year or 2. It's going to fall short of what environmentalists want, which is a permanent ban in some of these bigger, vast tracts of pristine wilderness. But it's a big victory for them if that occurs.
KNOY: Will it affect all national forests, or are there some exceptions?
SIMON: Well, that's really what the tousling is about. Particularly in the Pacific Northwest: Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska, there's a big push by the industry to exempt those so that they could still build new roads into those areas.
KNOY: If the Administration exempts the Tongass National Forest in Alaska and some of the bigger forests in the Pacific Northwest, what's the point? Because these are some of the biggest forests in the country.
SIMON: Well, that's a question that environmentalists are asking as well. But you would still have huge areas in the interiors in the Rockies that would be put off limits to roadbuilding.
KNOY: What about current roads?
SIMON: Current roads are really the sort of obscured issue in all this debate. there's 400,000 miles worth of roads into the National Forest right now. And the Forest Service says that they're going to come up with a plan as part of this other overall rule that would look at which roads to put out of commission, which roads to maintain, and, most importantly, where to get the money. And the money needs are actually quite staggering. there's actually a $440 million backlog simply to bring these existing roads up to environmental standards. And the Forest Service estimates the actual backlog for maintenance and really putting many of these roads to sleep, getting rid of them so we won't have more environmental damage, is a staggering $10 billion.
KNOY: How will all this affect the logging industry, Jim?
SIMON: I think the logging industry is going to be affected depending on where it is. I think the biggest effect will not be in the big, majestic forests of the Pacific Northwest that have had so much public attention, but really in the areas like Idaho, where there are vast, roadless tracts of really wild national forest; in eastern Oregon, in eastern Washington, and in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and Montana. And these are areas that really were not so economical to log until recently, until we've started reducing so dramatically forestry on the coasts.
KNOY: Why this suspension of road construction now?
SIMON: Well, I think that's twofold. I think one, there really is a new Forest Service, or a new image of the Forest Service, that Forest Service Chief Michael Dombeck and the Clinton Administration, which has taken a battering, really, on some environmental issues, would like to promote. But I think beyond that, much of the sort of energy of the environmental movement around forestry has really shifted to the roadbuilding issue.
KNOY: You mentioned a new attitude at the Forest Service. Where does that come from?
SIMON: I think it comes from 2 places. One, I think it clearly comes from public pressure and the public perception of what these forests are all about. In the old days the Forest Service was run on sort of a notion that management of these forests was really a rural economic development tool if nothing else. I think now that's quite changed in what our perception of what the national forests are all about. they're for recreation and sort of environmental values as well. And also I think you have a new generation of foresters who come from a more environmental ethos, and timber production is not what they were schooled in, and it is not what motivated them to get into the Forest Service.
KNOY: Jim Simon is a reporter for the Seattle Times. He joined us from the studios of KUOW in Seattle. Jim, thanks for joining us.
SIMON: Thanks for having me.
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