Background on the Roadless Area Conservation Rule

by Suez Jacobson

The Wilderness Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Johnson in 1964, created the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS). The Act also required the USFS to inventory and recommend additional areas for wilderness protection, a process the agency never fully honored.

Beginning in 1967 and stretching through 1977, the USFS ran two roadless area review and evaluation processes (known as RARE and RARE II) that were both invalidated by the courts for various inadequacies, including ignoring vast areas of land that clearly qualified for wilderness protection, and for process violations of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Additional lands were added to the NWPS in 1978 and in a series of bills passed in the early 1980s. These bills paused additional agency review and evaluation of new potential wilderness areas until forest management plans were revised, some fifteen to thirty—or more—years later. 

Identifying a need to preserve the nation’s remaining USFS roadless areas that had not been designated as wilderness by Congress, in 1998, USFS chief Mike Dombeck began a rulemaking process that would result in the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, issued in 2001 and signed by President Clinton. Stupefying losses of natural landscapes prompted the 2001 rule.

In the regulatory filing in the Federal Register, the USFS says, “The rate of land development and urbanization between 1992 and 1997 was more than twice that of the previous decade, while population growth rate remained fairly constant.” This document also clearly states the advantages of protecting roadless areas, and keeping them roadless. Those cited include: less erosion, clean water and healthy watersheds, habitat for threatened and endangered species, landscapes where non-native, invasive plant species are kept at bay, and large areas critical to biodiversity and the survival of species. The document also notes that roadless areas provide space for distanced outdoor recreation, scenic beauty, and reference landscapes for research to help us understand the damage roads do. The document also discusses the fiscal problem of having too many roads to afford proper maintenance.

USFS road mileage exceeds that of the Interstate Highway System and would allow you to drive around the circumference of Earth Mother more than 15 times.

To protect these inventoried roadless areas (58.5 million acres, or about 30 percent of USFA lands in the county), the final Roadless Rule “prohibits road construction, reconstruction, and [commercial] timber harvest in inventoried roadless areas” except under certain exceptional circumstances such as insect damage, disease, or fire mitigation. The Roadless Rule did not close any roads or motorized trails, and it does not prohibit mining or oil and gas leasing.  

Almost as soon as this rule was signed, court challenges sought to overturn the rule.  After years of conflicting rulings, by 2012, the Roadless Rule was ultimately upheld and remains the law of the land. Some states wanted exemptions from the rule, and in 2005, the George W. Bush administration obliged by allowing states to write their own roadless rules. This led to specific state roadless rules with specific small exemptions from the rule in Colorado and Idaho.

Alaska also challenged the roadless rule, seeking to allow commercial timber harvest in the Tongass National Forest. In 2016, the Supreme Court refused to hear a final effort from the state of Alaska to exempt the Tongass. That should have been the end of it. However, on October 28, 2020, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) under President Trump announced that a large section of the Tongass would be exempt from the 2001 Roadless Rule under a special state rule for Alaska. Thankfully, the Biden administration has reversed that decision. In mid-July 2021, the USDA announced that it will reinstate roadless rule protections for the nine million acres in the Tongass that the Trump administration had opened to logging (and the roads that go with it) and ensure that no logging will take place in old growth forests.