Keeping roadless areas from becoming wilderness


The key criterion for identifying potential wilderness is an area that “generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable” (Planning Handbook Ch. 70).  A new report from the Friends of the Clearwater alleges that the Forest Service is degrading the wilderness potential of existing roadless areas over time by logging them, using exceptions provided by the regulations governing management of roadless areas, such as reducing fire risk.

Since 2008, “Across Idaho, the Forest Service reported roadless logging in preliminary numbers ranging up to 18,000 acres of roadless areas.”  In Montana, “The Forest Service disclosed preliminary figures, enumerating that it authorized approximately 33,000 acres of roadless logging from 2010 to 2018.”

Also according to the report:

“When the Forest Service revises forest plans, we found a pattern where the agency drops isolated acreage from its roadless inventory and wilderness-recommendation process due to evidence of timber harvest. The Forest Service Handbook directs the agency to identify a basic potential-wilderness inventory; the agency can include areas where logging has occurred if improvements are not substantially noticeable. The Forest Service will also use this criterion to update its roadless inventory. In two different forest plans, the Forest Service dropped the roadless acres where timber harvest had occurred because at the time of review, those portions of roadless areas did not meet the criteria for potential wilderness or espoused roadless characteristics.”

This article includes a link to the report, and includes an example of a project that has led to recent litigation.

Utah is attempting a more direct approach:  modifying the regulations governing roadless areas for their state, including eliminating protections for some areas.  While road construction is generally not allowed in roadless areas under the existing regulations, Utah would like more roads to reduce fire risk, a contention countered here.


11 thoughts on “Keeping roadless areas from becoming wilderness”

  1. Jon, this is very confusing. Based on the 2001 Roadless Rule, I don’t think forests can actually “update their Roadless inventory” to kick acres out , unless they want to add more Roadless, except that wouldn’t be covered by the 2001 Rule. Can you explain?

  2. Good question, and I remember it the same way, that the roadless rules are regulations that apply to a particular inventory of areas, which can’t be changed by forest planning or otherwise. What I understand a national forest can do is make a factual determination that an area has or doesn’t have roadless values. That plays into both project NEPA effects analysis and forest plan wilderness suitability evaluations. So an area could still be in the inventory, and be subject to the continuing application of a roadless rule, but not be considered wilderness-worthy because of logging activities.

    • In those Roadless regulations, what is the difference between “roadless” and “unroaded”? It was always my understanding that old roads do exist within “unroaded” areas, while no roads exist within “roadless areas”. It seems like both ‘flavors’ are treated the same.

      • My understanding (7 years ago I was on top of roadless geek-hood) is that when the 2001 Rule was created, they were in a rush to get it done before the next administration AND maps weren’t what they are today. So some roadless areas have roads. The 2001 Inventory defines what is Roadless with a capital R (unless you’re in Colorado or Idaho which have state-specific Roadless Rules).
        What we did during the Colorado Roadless Rule development process was remove roaded areas from the inventory and add back areas that were unroaded and perhaps should have been included.
        So “unroaded” is a current state that you can observe, Roadless is “within the inventory of 2001 or state specific Roadless Rules, which may include roads.”

  3. But Roadless areas were roadless based on the inventory as they lacked roads (except for mapping problems) and they weren’t allowed to have logging since 2001 (except for a few gaps due to the Rule being enjoined). The exceptions for fire risk under 2001 allow cutting for fuel treatment but not temporary roads to get the logs to a mill. Maybe you could tractor yard around the edges of a Roadless area? Or cable logging to a landing outside of Roadless? I’m still confused.

    • Or, helicopter the logs out. It would be difficult to make a thinning project in a Roadless Area work out, economically. If the terrain isn’t too extreme, feller-bunchers could put ‘turns’ together for a medium-sized ship.

  4. The Report doesn’t really address your question, but I also assume it would have to be what they can reach from existing roads (and I wonder if that includes roads that exist within Inventoried Roadless Areas, or IRAs, which is the proper name for what the Roadless Rule applies to). But I guess their point is that it adds up to a few acres.

  5. We are still not allowed to change IRA boundaries during plan revision, even to correct mapping errors, so that statement is not correct. The roadless rule cannot be altered by plan revision, even if the maps do appear to have been drawn with a magic marker. But as Sharon has noted, state-specific roadless rules can change the original national inventory.
    It is still not easy to do much in IRAs, because we are required to maintain “roadless character”. Additionally, roads within IRAs are allowed to be maintained, but not reconstructed, (a distinction defined in the FS engineering handbook), which often limits equipment use. I have to wonder how many acres of hand thin for fuels reduction were included in this reporting of “timber harvest”.

  6. I went back to the Missoulian story.
    “The problem with that, according to the report authors, is that those treated areas then lose protection in later reviews.

    “When the Forest Service revises forest plans, we found a pattern where the agency drops isolated acreage from its roadless inventory and wilderness recommendation process due to evidence of timber harvest,” the report stated. For example, it found the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest in Montana had dropped 69,069 acres of roadless land from its previous 1983 inventory when it revised its forest plan in 2009.”

    I read sections of the original report by Katie Bilodeau and Gary McFarlane (which is 58 pages).
    The other example is are forests in Idaho around the time of the Idaho Roadless Rule, which is not changing during plan revision but rather changing as a part of a State Rulemaking, which most of us would think is an entirely different kettle of fish (needless to say, the authors of the report are not fans of the Idaho Rule).

    I’ll get in touch with the B-D and see what their story is. in the lawsuit they mention adding mountain bike trails, so that’s not really about managing roadless as roadless, that’s about managing roadless as potential Wilderness.

    I was curious about the funding for the report, the authors state that it was funded in part by thank the Leiter Family Foundation. I looked them up and here is what they look for.

    • “I was curious about the funding for the report, the authors state that it was funded in part by thank the Leiter Family Foundation. I looked them up and here is what they look for.”

      In a world where $6,500,000,000.00 was spent on the U.S. presidential and congressional elections in 2016, and where and billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch pledged to spend close to $400 million just themselves in the 2016 elections (in addition to dumping at least $300,000 in just a three year period on right-wing, property right think tanks like PERC, based on Bozeman)….

      It’s curious to me that we’d even spend anytime focused on identifying a family foundation established “to support community based non-profit organizations dedicated to preservation of habitat and environmental education” with “grants [that] range from $2,000 to $10,000.”

  7. Matthew, I am interested in this particular funding because I or others here (perhaps you?) might want to apply for grants from these folks. I’ve certainly become more interested in who funds what, since I started looking for funds for updating the website. Whether Koch or Soros, everyone have the right to philanthropize as they desire. I may have concerns that philanthropy can cross into advocacy and partisan politicking without triggering the legal requirements (including transparency) related to political funding.

    That is certainly not the case with this family foundation. This grant program sounds like something collaborative groups could apply for and hence may be of interest to other readers.


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