Case Overview, Roads in National Forests

This document provides background information and summarizes the debate over building roads in national forests. The links to the left will lead you to public documents that we have found.



          The roads that run through our national forests are the responsibility of the federal government. These roads make it convenient for hikers and campers visiting the forests to reach the areas where cars can be parked and communing with nature can begin. For the loggers who harvest the trees the roads are more than a convenience—they’re essential to removing the wood from the forest. Ninety-five percent of the trees taken out of national forests must go out by truck and trucks, of course, need roads to get to the mills that will transform logs into wood products.

          As loggers harvest their trees, they have to move to other areas of the forests. At the timber companies’ request the federal government has, until recently, extended the roads to facilitate their work. The result of this continuing process is an enormous network of roads. As a forest service bureaucrat noted, "There are 380,000 miles of roads in the national forests. That’s enough road to circle the world 15 times." In theory the loggers pay for these roads through a royalty on the trees they harvest, but environmentalists ridicule this notion, contending that the costs of building and maintaining the roads far exceeds the royalty income.

          The Clinton administration instituted an 18 month moratorium on further road building while it prepared a set of regulations to restrict future road building. Those regulations were put into effect shortly after the 2000 presidential election. New road building was banned on 43 million acres of national forest land, including 17 million acres of the Tongass National Forest in southern Alaska. The Tongass ban was a particularly important goal of environmentalists since that area contains a large, intact rain forest. Some leading congressional Republicans promised to work with the new Bush administration to overturn the controversial new regulations.



          These regulations were the product of research and planning by the U.S. Forest Service, part of the Department of Agriculture. The Forest Service has administrative responsibility for maintaining the roads. Strong support for its efforts came from an alliance of environmental groups, notably the Earth Justice Legal Defense Fund, the Heritage Forests Campaign, the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, and US PIRG. Interest group opponents of the regulations include the American Forest and Paper Association and the American Motorcycle Association.

          Opposition to the regulations in the Congress came primarily from western state Republicans. A leading critic is Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, chair of the Forests and Public Land Management subcommittee of the Senate Energy committee. He recently told CQ Weekly, “I will use all of the tools available to me to stop this from being implemented.” Alaska’s two Republican senators, Ted Stevens and Frank Murkowski, have also worked against this policy change. Sherwood Boehlert of New York is the leader of Republicans in the House with more moderate views on the environment.




          The primary argument made by the Forest Service is that it has a “huge system of roads” that it can’t afford to pay for. Roads need continual work, and Forest Service employees and contractors are constantly filling potholes, repairing culverts, and so on. Said one policymaker there, “we were receiving only about 20 percent of the funding needed for repair and maintenance.” By the end of the Clinton administration, the agency had accumulated a backlog of over $8 billion in needed work on existing roads.

          The Forest Service was also sympathetic to environmental arguments, but those were made more powerfully by advocacy groups championing protection of forest and wilderness areas. The primary environmental concern is water quality. Said one environmental lobbyist, "There are 922 municipal watersheds in the national forests. The roadless areas are primary reservoirs for clean water. Road construction...[is] the number one factor [in denigrating] water quality in these areas."

          Another argument in favor of the regulations is that it is increasingly uneconomical for the government to support road construction in the national forests. The remaining timber is harder to get to as it is at higher elevations and the royalty returned to the government fails to pay the cost of new construction. Finally, proponents emphasized that less than 5 percent of the nation’s timber comes from national forests. Stopping new road construction will not have an adverse impact on the supply or price of wood products.


          Not surprisingly, the regulations are bitterly opposed by those with an interest in logging. One of the arguments that they made is that Washington was dictating "a one-size fits all" policy for all forests. They also claimed that the administrative rulemaking was marred by procedural violations of the National Forest Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. Neither of these arguments gained much traction. Another argument was made by the American Motorcycle Association, which felt that the Forest Service was unfairly denying motorcycle enthusiasts the opportunity to enjoy their hobby in the forests. They worried that access to trails would be curtailed and existing trails wouldn’t be maintained. This point never claimed center stage in the dispute either. The strongest argument against the regulations was the traditional made by pro-business westerners: the need to develop our natural resources. In the words of Senator Stevens, the regulations are "one more step along the path that this administration has been blazing toward a goal of no natural resource activity on federal lands anywhere."


          Republican critics face considerable obstacles in undoing the Clinton administration’s regulations on roads in the national forests. The Bush administration Forest Service cannot simply declare them null and void; rather it would have to initiate another round of administrative rulemaking and develop evidence to support a change. The administration did delay the implementation of the rules so it could develop a strategy for dealing with them. It may try to reach some kind of negotiated settlement. At this writing it’s very unclear what the Forest Service will do with this new policy inherited from the Clinton administration.



          The primary policymaking arena has been the U.S. Forest Service, which conducted a long and highly involved rulemaking process, first on the moratorium and then later on the regulations. The White House became involved at the end of the administrative rulemaking process as Chief of Staff John Podesta appeared to have green lighted the issuance of the final regulations. Legislators have also been involved, quizzing Forest Service administrators at hearings and, less formally, through personal lobbying of those officials. Once the regulations were issued, timber interests filed suit in federal court to stop their implementation and the courts seem likely to play a major role in the next chapters of this saga.


Lobbying Activities and Tactics

          The lobbying on the roads in the national forests issues followed a fairly conventional script. Lobbyists targeted both the Congress and the Forest Service. Interest groups worked with their allies in the House and Senate to press the Forest Service to formulate acceptable regulations. During the notice-and-comment period interest groups generated hundreds of thousands of written comments on the proposed regulations. This was also an opportunity for Congress to voice its opinion and one Forest Service official said that "One-third of the House of Representatives sent us letters giving us their opinions." The Forest Service also held meetings with interest groups on both sides of the issue.