Anyone who has spent time on high points of New England’s White or Green Mountains knows that views of forests unbroken by roads, clear-cuts, or energy development are rare in the northeastern U.S. If a controversial proposal by the U.S. Department of Agriculture moves forward, there may soon be even fewer wilderness vistas in our forested backyard.
At the petitioning of Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is reviewing whether it should exempt Alaska from the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, a far-sighted, widely supported regulation that limited road construction, commercial timber harvest, and other forms of resource extraction on some of America’s most ecologically sensitive public lands.
The 2001 rule gives added protection to some 58.5 million acres of road-free landscapes managed by the U.S. Forest Service, an agency within the USDA.
The proposed rule change threatens 15 million acres on Alaska’s Tongass and Chugach national forests, or nearly a quarter of all lands protected by the 2001 rule. Although that’s reason enough to oppose this measure, the danger of state-by-state exemptions by the Trump administration potentially threatens roadless area protection in New England’s national forests.
While ridge-top wind development, power lines, roads and clear-cuts may be eyesores for the Northeast’s backcountry recreationists, they are a matter of life and death for the wildlife that call these forests home.
Many Northeastern fish and wildlife species share similar traits to their Alaskan cousins. Brown bears, salmon and mountain goats depend on large, intact and connected landscapes for their survival in America’s 49th state. Moose, lynx, black bear, Bicknell’s thrush, and pine marten depend on large and connected forests here in the Northeast.
The White and Green Mountain national forests harbor some of the largest remaining blocks of roadless forest left in New England. Of the combined 1.2 million acres on the two national forests, 248,000 acres are congressionally-designated wilderness areas, while 310,000 acres are managed under the Roadless Rule.
In a region where only 3.5 percent of the land base is managed to protect unimpeded natural processes and prohibit resource extraction, the Green and White Mountain national forests safeguard critical habitat for species dependent on mature forests, often defined as forests older than 100 years. Unfortunately, with roadless lands in the crosshairs, this habitat is now also among the most vulnerable.
When the Roadless Area Conservation Rule was pursued by the Clinton administration, the Forest Service facilitated one of the most robust public involvement processes in federal rulemaking history, gathering comments from 1.6 million Americans. Of those, 95 percent demanded strong protections for roadless forests.
Twenty years on, the rule has survived legal challenges and attempted rewrites by Congress, and the Forest Service’s maintenance backlog has reached billions of dollars on the existing 375,000 miles of road it maintains.
Meanwhile, our appreciation of the value of roadless forests has only increased. Researchers point to large, connected landscapes as the last resort for species suffering from human-caused climate change. As a mitigation measure, protecting New England’s wildest temperate hardwood forests keeps carbon out of the atmosphere and slows the rate of warming.
Northeastern forests and the species that depend on them rebounded from near catastrophe in the 1900s after two centuries of unsustainable clearing, grazing and hunting. Turkeys, beavers and moose are just a few of the species we frequently encounter today that were on the brink of survival only one lifetime ago.
The future is less certain. Sprawling low-density exurban development and associated road and energy infrastructure threaten to unravel the forest recovery of the previous century. Will our forest-dwelling neighbors be able to withstand their shrinking habitat? Or will they go the way of the wolves and cougars that formerly ranged throughout the region?
Allow one state to exempt itself from the Roadless Area Conservation Rule and others will follow. Alaska and New England’s intact forests are too rare and too valuable to offer to the highest bidder.
Outreach and Communications Coordinator
Northeast Wilderness Trust