Thursday, September 08, 2005

Roadless area debate continues- From Cook Country Star 9/10/05

By Rhonda Silence

When commissioners from Cook, Lake, and St. Louis Counties and members of the Grand Portage Tribal Council sent a letter to Governor Tim Pawlenty on July 26, 2005, asking for a meeting to discuss the "Final Rule for State Petition for Inventoried Roadless Area Management," it was just the latest round in a decades-old debate surrounding roadless areas. Commissioners hoped to meet with the governor to discuss the 60,000 acres of roadless areas in Cook, Lake, St. Louis counties and 1854 Treaty Lands. The Arrowhead region governmental entities have yet to hear from Governor Pawlenty.

However, another group, the Minnesota Forest Resources Council (MFRC) has been tasked with studying the petition process and giving the Governor a recommendation on how to proceed.MFRC is a multi-disciplinary technical team, which was established in 1995 to coordinate the development of timber harvesting and forest management guidelines. The lone voice for Cook County on the MFRC is that of local outdoor writer, Shawn Perich of Hovland. This is a matter that has been under debate for decades-and which could end up costing the state millions of dollars with ultimately no difference in how the Forest Service manages the state's roadless areas. Since the governor tasked MFRC with giving him a recommendation on how to proceed, Perich has been studying the roadless issue. In a recent interview he shared a brief history of the issue, noting that the debate started in 1970, when the Forest Service began a study to identify primitive areas and inventory all roadless areas in National Forests and Grasslands greater than 5000 acres. That study was called the Roadless Area Review and Evaluation (RARE). The process was challenged in court and came to a stop in 1972, only to be resurrected in 1978 as RARE II. This time the Forest Service worked to identify and inventory areas that were roadless or undeveloped using the criteria that qualifies land for inclusion as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. The RARE II process was also challenged and eventually a court ruling found that the national evaluation of roadless areas was not site-specific enough and that it did not consider a wide enough range of alternatives. In February 1999, the debate began anew when the Forest Service issued an 18-month moratorium on new road construction in national forests to give the Forest Service the opportunity to examine its roads policy as it entered the 21st century. During this time, the Forest Service collected and analyzed public comments. In response to overwhelming comments supporting roadless area conservation, President Clinton directed the Forest Service to develop a roadless policy focused on conservation of all inventoried roadless areas. In January 2001, the Roadless Area Conservation Rule was adopted.However, along with the change in administration came changes to the roadless rule. After much debate on a national level, on May 5, 2005, President Bush repealed the Roadless Area Conservation Rule and put in place the new petitioning process. Governors were given 18 months to petition the Secretary of Agriculture, to submit their own management recommendations. If Governor Pawlenty chooses to submit a petition for review of roadless areas, the state must identify roadless areas in need of protection, map them, and design individual management recommendations, all before November 2006.That, said Perich, is what concerns him. "There's not a lot of time to get all that work done. And, the state could spend a fortune developing these management plans-and the Secretary of Agriculture could deny the whole thing."If the Secretary of Agriculture denies the petition, the management of roadless areas throughout the state, including the 60,000 acres in the Arrowhead, remains the same as planned in the latest Forest Plan. Even if the Secretary of Agriculture approves the state's petition, that is only the beginning. If approved, the state and the Forest Service are then required to jointly develop a specific management plan for the state's roadless areas.

Many Cook County residents hoped that the governor's option to petition could be used to review the Forest Service decision to declare the Vegetable Lake area of Cook County a semi-primitive non-motorized area (SPNM), possibly even leading to a reversal of the non-motorized designation. Commissioner Bob Fenwick said it isn't that easy. He noted that while no single roadless area was being singled out for debate at this time, it could if the governor chose to pursue a review of the state's roadless areas. "In a nutshell, is anybody singling out any one roadless area, like the Vegetable Chain today? No. Could any one single roadless area be managed differently in the future than it is today? Yes."Fenwick feels strongly that the county should be involved in any roadless area discussions. "In the petition process, the federal government has done something unique. It has indicated that local governments should have a say. We don't want the governor to say 'forget it.' We'd like some say in the management of the land in our county."

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