Transition to Bush Act Would Mean More Control of Wyoming Forests

Mounds of early winter snow melt into rivulets of water as the afternoon sun hits Vedauwoo's granite boulders.

CHEYENNE, Wyo. − Mounds of early winter snow melt into rivulets of water as the afternoon sun hits Vedauwoo's granite boulders.

Far above, a bald eagle spreads its wings and drifts in a steady current, not seeming to notice the din of the highway only a few miles away.

Located at the southern edge of the Sherman Mountains in the Medicine Bow National Forest, Vedauwoo's softly rounded cliffs and sweeping meadows fringed by ponderosa pine offer quiet recreation and wildlife viewing despite their proximity to Interstate 80.

More than 30 years ago, a U.S. Forest Service study recommended that 6,300 acres of the popular climbing, hiking and off-road-vehicle use area become a designated roadless area, protected from the encroachment of development and timber harvest.

But in 2001, the area was left out of the Roadless Area Conservation Act, legislation enacted by the Clinton administration in its final days. Often referred to as the Clinton roadless rule, the federal mandate prevented the construction of future roads into pristine wild areas.


The debate over protecting Vedauwoo as a roadless area is one example of a fight going on nationally for the soul of the national forests.

Some cling to the hope that the Clinton roadless rule will survive the many legal challenges it has faced since its inception and perhaps bring Vedauwoo under its umbrella. Others view the rule as overly restrictive and downright disrespectful of people's rights to use the land in the way that they see fit.

To complicate the situation, the Bush administration has proposed a new rule to replace the Clinton legislation. It would give governors the power to ask the Forest Service to extend more protections to areas like Vedauwoo or to recommend that such protections be removed.

Meanwhile, a local plan for the Medicine Bow National Forest, called the Revised Resource and Management Plan, functions as the principal rule until a decision is reached on a federal plan.

So as the legislative debate rages on, U.S. Forest Service officials walk a fine line toward meeting the needs of the forest and the people.

Although the Clinton rule did not restrict human travel into roadless areas by foot, bicycle or off-road vehicle, it became a lightning rod for criticism from motorized vehicle enthusiasts who opposed what they said was a restriction of their rights. Timber companies joined gas and oil exploration companies in their objection to the rule.

The negative reaction among Wyoming's motorized recreational vehicle users was in part due to the feeling that the forests belong to the people -- especially the locals, said Weston Nanini of Laramie Ski-Doo.

"If you ask people in the government, they don't really know what's out here," he said. "They're kind of clueless."

Nanini said many motorcyclists and off-road vehicle riders are intimately familiar with the trails they ride, and they resent rules coming from Washington that restrict access to the forests.

"This community spends a lot of time outdoors, and being from Wyoming, we all value our rights," he said. "A lot of people depend on those trails for their livelihood."

But according to conservationists, the preservation of roadless areas is so important that only the federal government can do it effectively.

Jeff Kessler, one of the founders of the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, said the areas are valuable for both people and wildlife and added that local decision making can be swayed by economic interests.

"We believe wild places are a diminishing resource, and these are the places that define Wyoming to Wyomingites and to the nation," Kessler said.

Since its inception in 2001, the Clinton rule has faced nine challenges in federal district courts. A ruling by Wyoming District Court Judge Clarence Brimmer most recently struck down the act, and his action is under appeal in the Tenth District Court of Appeals in Denver.

A recent plan proposed by the Bush administration to replace the Clinton rule would retract the protections extended in the original plan and instead use a petition process for governors to ask that specific areas in their states be granted roadless status.

Mary Peterson, supervisor of the Medicine Bow National Forest, says it's a philosophical difference about whether roadless areas are best managed on the state and local level or by the federal government.

Even though it remains on appeal, the Clinton rule still has an impact on the crafting of forest management policy since Peterson and her staff has had to design their plans around the possibility that the rule could stand or be struck down.

The Medicine Bow National Forest textures the state like a crazy quilt with patches of dense forest, open meadows and areas of high altitude rock and ice.

Covering 2.9 million acres, it includes four distinct areas -- the Snowy Range, located west of Laramie; the Sierra Madre, located south of Encampment; the Pole Mountain/Vedauwoo area west of Cheyenne; and Laramie Peak, southeast of Casper.

The Medicine Bow provides a haven for otters, owls, goshawks, tiger salamanders and cutthroat trout. There is rumored to be lynx among the confirmed presence of endangered animals like the boreal toad.

People also find refuge in the Medicine Bow's wild spaces for hiking, mountain biking, skiing and hunting.

Timber harvesting and oil and gas exploration occur there too, and Peterson said her job is to try to find balance among the competing interests.

She calls them "differing values," and as supervisor of the forest, she must weigh numerous opposing views of how it should be treated.

In the Revised Resource and Management Plan that came into effect in January 2004, Peterson said her agency's research combined with public comments on roadless areas in the forest.

"We had 33 small roadless areas, and one of the things we did in working with public comment was we looked at how much of inventoried roadless areas actually had value for commercial timber," she said. "We found that there's a pretty good reason why these roadless areas are roadless: There isn't value for commercial timber, they don't have the right soil types or their steepness prevents roading."

Long before the creation of the Clinton rule, the Forest Service had its own means for protecting the nation's most natural places.

"We liked how it worked with the 1982 planning regulations; it allowed us to be more site-specific," she said.

In the absence of a conclusive ruling on the Clinton rule, guidelines like the Medicine Bow's revised management plan will serve as overarching law.

But supporters of the roadless rule say they fear the Bush rule allows individual forest supervisors to have too large an impact on the crafting of policy that affects the national forests. Those, they say, belong to the nation as a whole.

The plan proposed by the Bush administration would put more power in the hands of governors to seek protection of natural places in their states.

But conservationists say they worry about the lack of federal oversight in executing the plan.

"Local governments often don't consider conservation as a value," said Erik Molvar, a biologist with the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance. "Such an important idea really needs to be applied everywhere -- especially since there's roading and logging everywhere."

Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal said the Bush plan suffers from the same problems the Clinton plan created: It paints with too broad a brush outside of the existing process.

By asking governors to make decisions on roadless areas, Freudenthal said governors are put "in the worst of all worlds. We have neither the data nor the staff to make these decisions."

Plus, the Bush rule restricts the amount of time governors have to make proposals, he said.

"It gives governors nothing that they don't have today," he said.

But supporters of the Bush plan say local authorities have a better understanding of their national forests and should know better how to manage them.

"As far as the Clinton administration, they definitely were focused on protecting as much land as they possibly could, and in some areas, I think that's good," Nanini said. "There are some really unique areas that should be protected. But in our area, those trails have been there for a long, long time."

He and his snowmobile and off-road vehicle customers disagree with the idea that the federal government knows best.

"I kind of take it personally offensive that someone from the East Coast can say, 'You guys shouldn't go here or go there,'" he said. "I guess local control would be a better way of managing it, but I'm also a skier and a hiker. I see both sides."

As the final ruling on the Clinton rule has been hanging in balance for the past year, Peterson has gotten on with managing the Medicine Bow.

She said she's now focused on forest health as two bark-eating beetle infestations threaten the strength of wide swaths of pine stands in the forest.

After considering comments from all sides of the roadless issue, the Medicine Bow's final Revised Resource and Management Plan preserved the status of the vast majority of the designated roadless areas listed in the Clinton rule.

"In the revised plan, 95 percent of what was inventoried will remain roadless, and in 5 percent we will allow timber harvest," Peterson said.

"The amount of volume that will come from that area is only 0.8 million board feet per year or 8 million board feet per decade."

As an added precaution, the timber harvested there is non-interchangeable, meaning if it's not taken from the small portion of the roadless areas, it won't be taken from roaded areas, Peterson said.

"The approach we took here was we didn't know which way it would go, so we left room for the court ruling to go either way," she said.

This plan also designates Vedauwoo as a "non-motorized" zone, but that protection is less than secure, Molvar said.

"At the discretion of the forest supervisor, this protection could easily be rescinded," he added.

Kessler characterizes the revised plan as a "mixed bag" that offers far more protections to the forest than he expected. Still, he doesn't hold the newly proposed Bush rule in very high esteem.

"The administration doesn't seem to place a high value on protecting public lands and public places. We're all hopeful the (Clinton) roadless rule will be sustained in the courts."

Stakeholders like Nanini say the situation calls for balance of his needs as part of a business that relies 75 percent on revenues from snowmobile sales, with those of conservationists who want the forests to be left undisturbed.

"It's a big thing for this economy," he said. "There's enough country out there that people should be able to go out and do what they want to do."

Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News