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U.S. Department of Agriculture: Development of national forest roadless areas halted

The on-again, off-again potential development of remote areas on national forests, called roadless areas, is off again.

U.S Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Thursday signed an interim directive giving him decision-making authority over proposed forest management or road construction projects in inventoried roadless areas.

"This interim directive will provide consistency and clarity that will help protect our national forests until a long-term roadless policy reflecting President Obama's commitment is developed," Vilsack said in a statement.

As the Chippewa National Forest is a well-developed recreational national forest, the directive will have little effect. It has only 77 acres of inventoried roadless areas, consisting of three islands, of the Chippewa's total 666,000 acres.

Most of the affected areas are northeast of Walker, involving acreage on the Pine Point Natural Area, and on an island in Island Lake south of Northome in Itasca County.

The directive will have more impact on the Superior National Forest, where there are 60,082 acres of roadless areas of the Superior's 2.1 million acres.

The U.S. Forest Service, with jurisdiction over the national forests and grasslands, makes decisions about what projects can take place on those lands, Vilsack said.

In simultaneously upholding and overturning the 2001 Clinton administration roadless rule, the courts have created confusion and made it difficult for the U.S. Forest Service to do its job, he said. The directive will ensure that USDA can carefully consider activities in the inventoried roadless areas while long-term roadless policy is developed and relevant court cases move forward.

"With this action, President Obama is demonstrating his clear commitment to protecting the natural heritage of the American people," Niel Lawrence, senior attorney and forest project director for the National Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.

"A moratorium on road building will provide vital protection for the Tongass (in Alaska) and other national forests," he said. "In the Bush era, officials worked tirelessly to undermine the 2001 roadless rule -- President Clinton's enormously popular conservation landmark -- and opened up millions of acres of pristine forests to clear cutting and road building.

"We look forward to the day when the Obama administration puts an end to this sad legacy and achieves the full implementation of the 2001 roadless rule," Lawrence said.

In 2001, President Bill Clinton proposed an end of road construction on 43 million acres -- nearly a quarter of the 192-million-acre national forest system. The Clinton plan considered more than 54 million acres of inventoried roadless areas and additional non-road areas on national forests and grasslands.

About 60 million acres of the 192 million acres in the sytem are considered wild or undeveloped, while the rest provides U.S. Forest Service-regulated activities in logging, camping, skiing, mining and off-road vehicle use.

The incoming President George W. Bush administration, however, prevented the policy from taken effect by stopping the rule-making process to implement it. The policy or non-policy has since been contested in the courts.

The interim directive changes procedural requirements for Forest Service projects in inventoried roadless areas, USDA said. It does not prevent the Agriculture secretary from either approving projects that he believes are in the interest of forest stewardship or prohibiting projects he believes are not.

The secretary will work closely with the U.S. Forest Service to implement this interim directive, the statement said.

The only state where the directive won't apply is Idaho, which developed its own roadless rule through the Administrative Procedures Act. That rule already prescribes how decisions on forest management and road building in roadless areas in Idaho are to be made, USDA said.

The interim directive will last for a year and can be renewed for an additional year, it said.