Friday, June 5, 2020
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Restoring the roadless forest

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While the Clinton Roadless Rule attracted praise from environmental groups and concern from the forest products industry when it was introduced, people on both side of the issue now say they don't think Minnesota should re-introduce the rule. (MPR file photo)
The state's Forest Resources Council considers whether roadless protections should be restored to more than 60,000 acres in Minnesota. In early 2001, the Clinton Administration set aside tracts in the Superior and Chippewa National Forests as "roadless." The areas were off-limits to motor vehicles, logging or mining. But President Bush later reversed the Clinton roadless rule. Now, it would take a petition from Governor Tim Pawlenty to get the areas fully protected again. But there are groups on both sides of the issue that don't want to see that happen.

Duluth, Minn. — President Clinton's Roadless Area Conservation Rule protected 58 million acres nationwide. In Minnesota, some 65,000 acres were declared roadless, mostly in the Superior National Forest.

Last May, The Bush Administration dropped the roadless designation. In some cases, logging is now allowed on tracts once designated roadless, according to Sean Werley, with the group "Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness."

"For instance the Echo Trail logging project, which plans to cut 16,000 acres on the edge of the wilderness," Werley says. "That is left vulnerable and open because of this new national policy."

But the new rule has a twist. State Governors can petition for the acres to be returned to roadless status. Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty has asked the state's Forest Resources Council to recommend whether he should file a petition. The council, which advises the Governor on forestry issues, includes representatives of interested groups from timber producers to environmental advocates.

We actually fear that the process could result in fewer protections.
- Sean Werley

It may come as a surprise that Sean Werley would rather Minnesota skip the petitioning and leave the current management in place - despite the logging near the Echo Trail. Werley says he's not entirely happy with the new Superior-Chippewa Forest Land Management Plan, but he worries what could happen if the roadless issue was reopened.

"Because we fear that in fact reviewing it would open it to weakening those protections," says Werley.

Nation-wide, almost a dozen states are filing petitions to restore roadless areas. But Werley says, in Minnesota conservation groups are not pushing the issue.

"Those states have Democratic governors in which conservationists feel that these governors would be inclined to bring additional protections," says Werley. "In Minnesota, we don't have that luxury. We actually fear that the process could result in fewer protections."

Ely-based Conservationists with Common Sense opposed the roadless rule, and is usually at a polar opposite on issues with the Friends of the Boundary Waters. But on this, they're in rare agreement to leave the issue alone, according to CWCS President Nancy McReady.

"It's just plain common sense." McReady says. "It would not be in our best interest to open up a can of worms, possibly, and make things worse. We might open up areas that are off limits right now, and where-as we might end up losing areas that are open right now. So ... I don't think we want to stir the can."

For some, it's hard to separate the roadless issue from new restrictions under the Superior and Chippewa Forest Land Management Plan. The plan sets aside additional areas to be managed without roads and without motors - public recreation areas with fewer restrictions than a formal wilderness. The Vegetable Lakes, off the Gunflint Trail, fall under the new road-free management.

Shawn Perich is an outdoor writer and member of the Forest Resources Council. Perich doesn't like the new restrictions, but he says a change in the federal roadless rules would do little to help.

"I don't know that I'm interested in having the Governor petition," Perich says. "Certainly, I'm interested in having the governor listen to local concerns, and I'm even more interested in having the Forest Service do that. Whether or not local concerns can be addressed through a petition regarding the roadless rule is another question."

Three states have filed suit to overturn the Bush administration's rule. Conservation groups have asked Attorney General Mike Hatch to join the lawsuit - but Hatch hasn't done so. He say's he'd need a request from the Minnesota Forest Resources Council. That's not considered likely.

Today the council considers its advice to Governor Pawlenty, when it meets in Cloquet.