BRATTLEBORO – Roadless areas in Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest will be protected for at least one more year after Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that he would be extending a national moratorium on development in forest service land across the United States.
Vilsack said Tuesday that he would be upholding the 2001 Clinton-era Roadless Rule, which limits the construction of new roads on inventoried, roadless areas in the nation’s national forests.
The rule is currently being challenged in federal court, and Vilsack said the Obama Administration would not allow any new development in the roadless areas of the national forest system until the case is resolved.
“As we await a ruling on the 2001 Roadless Rule from the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, I will continue to work with the U.S Forest Service to ensure we protect roadless areas in our national forests,” Vilsack said in a press release. “Renewing this interim directive for a third year reflects this administration’s commitment to conserve our forests by ensuring that projects in roadless areas receive a higher level of scrutiny by this department.”
The rule covers about 58 million acres across the country, and approximately 10,000 in Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest.
The rule was first initiated to control large-scale mining and logging.
And even though those activities are already somewhat limited in Vermont, Jamey Fidel,
Forest Program Director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council, said the rule still protects lands in New England.
With a battle developing in northern New Hampshire over a proposed power line, and plans to introduce more wind power to the region, Fidel said it is important to have rules in place to protect undeveloped national forestland.
“Our position is not to be against logging, but to be concerned with the fragmentation of large tracts of land,” Fidel said. “We should be resisting further road building in remote roadless areas in the state.”
The Clinton Administration first introduced the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, but it took Washington about three years to adopt it.
When the rule was finally adopted then-President George W. Bush modified the regulations to allow states to designate their own roadless rules.
The rule has been held up in the courts, and this is the third year the Obama Administration has extended the interim rule for a year.
Under the one-year directive, the Secretary of Agriculture has authority over proposed development in roadless areas in the national forests.
Under the previous two years of interim rules, 38 projects have been approved, including forest restoration near towns, a small hydroelectric facility in Alaska and the building of short access roads to state forest lands.
“It is important to note that this rule does not prohibit development,” said Fidel. “It says projects should be done in a sustainable way and with long term impacts considered, and we support that.”
Molly Matteson, who works out of Richmond for the Center for Biological Diversity, said that while Vilsack’s announcement this week was welcomed, she and other environmentalists are still looking for a stronger commitment from the Obama Administration on protecting New England wilderness areas.
Matteson said New England, which was heavily de-forested in the last century, is actually growing its roadless forest areas.
It is not clear if roadless tracts formed since 2001 are protected, and Matteson wants USDA to settle the issue.
“Until we get clarification, those areas are in jeopardy,” she said. “This is a good step, and we are glad the rule is being continued, but we want the Obama Administration to take a stronger stand.”