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Roadless to Washington

A Bitterrooter enters the federal roadless-forest fray

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As controversy and lawsuits swirl around President Clinton’s roadless lands protection proposal, one Forest Service employee has volunteered her time to participate in the process, hoping she can make a difference.

Tami Brewer is a resource team leader who divides her time between the Stevensville and Darby ranger districts. As with anyone who has worked in Bitterroot National Forest, she is no stranger to the intense interest and widely varied opinions that greet every major decision made by Bitterroot rangers.

“I hope I will bring a flavor of the real world to the process in Washington [D.C.],” Brewer says. “There’s a lot of pressure here. It’s very different, I imagine, than what they deal with.”

Brewer will get her chance to find out soon. She has volunteered to work on the Roadless Lands Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). In early March she leaves for a two-month assignment, working on the public review part of the process.

“I think I’m going to find chaos,” Brewer says. “The draft EIS is due out in May and there were more than 500,000 public comments received on the initial proposal.”

That proposal surfaced in a speech made by the president in mid-October. Calling the remaining 40 million acres of roadless lands in the U.S. “our treasured inheritance,” Clinton said he was “launching one of the largest land-preservation efforts in American history.”

In his speech, the president noted that only 5 percent of all timber comes from national forests and only 5 percent of national forests are listed as roadless lands. Clinton then called for the Forest Service and timber industry to look elsewhere and leave the roadless lands untouched for future generations.

His words were taken seriously by U.S. Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck. An interim “no action” roadless plan had been instituted in 1998 to allow time for study and public comment on USFS road policies. Within a month of Clinton’s speech, Dombeck had an outline, a plan, solid proposals and a time-line that called for completion within a year.

That speed in any Forest Service decision is more than highly unusual—it is unheard of in a project of this magnitude. The Columbia River Basin EIS has been in development for almost a decade. The Yellowstone oil pipeline EIS was five years in the making and not completed when the oil company called a halt to it. The Grizzly Bear Reintroduction EIS has been a work in progress for almost that long with frequent delays.

And what is this proposal?

The U.S. Forest Service will use its regulatory powers to restrict certain activities, such as road construction and reconstruction, in the unroaded portions of inventoried roadless areas. Then the agency will establish procedures and criteria to be used by each forest to determine what activities are consistent with the values associated with roadless areas of all sizes—inventoried or not—that maintain or enhance social or ecological attributes.

The rules will affect about 54 million acres of inventoried roadless areas. Of that amount, Montana has 5,827,000 acres, behind Alaska (12,018,000 acres) and Idaho (9,232,000). About 45 percent of these areas are already in management districts that do not allow road construction. This would protect the remaining amount, with final decisions to be determined through local forest planning—based on adherence to the yet-to-be determined roadless values.

Roadless areas have been a subject of public debate for the past 30 years. In the 1970s, the Forest Service conducted two reviews to inventory roadless areas of 5,000 acres or larger. Since then, some of the areas in the initial inventory have been designated as wilderness by Congress. Some have been roaded for various reasons, including logging. The largest portion, however, remains roadless, with controversy over its management having lead to lawsuits, appeals, letter-writing campaigns and Congressional hearings—without creating any consensus.

Now, that appears poised to change, and Brewer is excited about the opportunity to be a part of it. She will be working on the presentations that will be made around the country after the draft EIS is released.

”We’ll be coming up with public involvement strategies—how the Forest Service will develop the public involvement portion of the EIS,” Brewer says. “I may have the opportunity to write briefing papers for Congress and the president and staff a public involvement hotline.”

Brewer will be assigned to an office in Roselyn, Va., with the rest of the public involvement team. Other teams are working on projects all over the greater Washington, D.C., area. She hopes to visit the main headquarters while she is on assignment.

“I think it’s a good thing for someone from Stevensville, Montana, to go back and see what it is all about from their perspective,” Brewer says. “I’ll bring a breath of how things are out in the field. It’s been really controversial out here on our forests and I have some ideas about what makes a good meeting.”

Positive public involvement will be the next step in the process after the Draft EIS is released, Brewer says. The agency must be able to explain the process and the reasons for the proposals to the public. Brewer believes her local experience can aid that effort.

“It’s a little intimidating but it’s good personal growth,” Brewer adds.

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