In our 2002 book on the Northwest, one of the best pieces of news we reported was a historic pause in the region’s road expansion, largely because for the first time in decades, northwesterners reduced the pace of road construction in national forests. From 1991-2000, the Northwest’s National Forest road system shrank by 4,400 miles; the Forest Service also closed an additional 17,200 miles of roads.

This week’s announcement by US Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman of a new proposal to significantly weaken the Clinton Administration-era “roadless rule” threatens to erode those steady gains. The roadless rule banned road-building in nearly 60 million acres of national forests, including about 2 million acres in Oregon, 2 million acres in Washington, and 9.3 million acres in Idaho. Governors, said Veneman, will now be in charge of deciding whether or not to protect the roadless forest lands in their states.

The Oregonian editorial board voiced cautious approval for the plan—citing it as a win for local control. The Seattle P-I, meanwhile, cited Oregon evidence that suggests only logging-friendly governors “should expect their views to be respected.”

“Witness what happened in Oregon’s Klamath-Siskiyou region where the Forest Service just approved a huge timber sale, much of it in a roadless area despite pleas from Gov. Ted Kulongoski.”

Idaho’s forests may be most vulnerable: While Governors Kulongoski of Oregon and Gary Locke of Washington criticized the plan, Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne is a strong supporter of the plan.

  • It’s worth remembering why roadless areas are so important: Roads are not only indicators of the physical scale of northwesterners’ real-estate development and logging—see our clearcutting maps for a 30-year snapshot of what roads and the industries they support do—but they are also a first-order ecological problem in themselves. Roads fragment previously intact ecosystems, speed the spread of invasive organisms, cause landslides on steep slopes, and send pollution and sediment into nearby waterways.

    Roadless forests and watersheds, meanwhile, offer sanctuary for salmon and Sitka spruce; for keystone predators like grizzly bears, whose presence structures entire food webs; and for an invisible foundation of fungi and microorganisms. They sustain the ancient regenerating rhythms of fire and flood and provide humans with benefits ranging from clean water and moderate climates to crop pollination and recreation.

    And though growth of the Northwest’s road network has slowed, it still stretches an estimated 800,000 miles (1.3 million kilometers), enough to wrap around the equator more than 32 times. That length of roads is roughly equal to the combined length of all the region’s streams taken together, which means that that vehicles may have better access to the Northwest’s terrain than do salmon.