Secretary Vilsack takes first stride toward protecting wild forests

Last week Agriculture Secretary Vilsack made a terrific move toward protecting federal wildlands when he  announced that road building or logging in national forest “roadless areas” will need his personal approval.

This is an essential first step in fully restoring the hugely popular Roadless Area Conservation Rule, adopted in 2001 to end piecemeal loss of pristine national forest lands to industrial development.  The Bush administration relentlessly undermined that landmark rule.  Now, except as Secretary Vilsack determines, these last bastions of our natural heritage will stay unspoiled.

Little noted was Vilsack’s highly significant inclusion of the Tongass National Forest in his directive.  The Tongass, a globally important temperate rainforest in Southeast Alaska, suffered harsh treatment by Bush officials.  They exempted it from the 2001 rule and designed a series of huge clearcut projects for its wild forests.

If there’s a poster child for national forests, it’s the Tongass, largest and wildest of the bunch.  Grizzly bears and timber wolves roam freely there, rivers teem with salmon, bald eagles soar overhead, and massive, moss-draped, old-growth trees rim its misty inlets.

Recently, prominent scientists wrote President Obama about the vital role of intact roadless areas in an era of climate change.  They store carbon, shelter jeopardized species, and set an example for other nations – whose forest loss aggravates global warming as much as all forms of transportation worldwide.  The scientists concluded “it is imperative that early action be taken in the Tongass—and throughout the country—to uphold the Roadless Rule.”

Secretary Vilsack’s directive spurns the appalling view that the Tongass somehow deserves reduced protection.  Now, with a raft of logging proposals headed for his desk, he should take the next step:  declare the Tongass exemption over.  That would be simple, because it was adopted without proper environmental review or sound justification.