Roadless Areas

This broad, bottom-line initiative would protect more than 55 million acres without the baggage of Wilderness designations.

What makes a place wild? While many attributes contribute, the single most important is the absence of roads. The Wilderness Act begins its definition of Wilderness as a "roadless" place. The Act instructed the U.S. Forest Service to evaluate which of its lands were roadless. Subsequent land management acts included this principle and today every new forest plan revision must by law include a review of lands that are roadless but not yet designated Wilderness. So preservation advocates focus on roads and preservation opponents try to get more roads built.

The absence of roads precludes a lot of development. You cannot build a dam without a road. It's hard to build a house. You could cut the trees, but the only ways to get them out of the forest would be by horses, who are relatively weak, or by helicopter, which is often too expensive. Jeeps usually can't travel in roadless areas, although motorcycles and sometimes ATVs can get there.

At the end of his term, President Bill Clinton passed a rule that would regulate national forest roadless areas, imposing just two limits: The U.S. Forest Service would allow no building of roads into these areas, and it would allow only non-commercial logging -- which really meant logging that might help prevent fire and disease, but would not supply timber for lumber yards and pulp mills.

The roadless initiative inherently did not speak to what kind of travel or recreation could occur. It theoretically allowed motorcycles, because they can travel on trails, while it almost certainly prohibited 4WD automobiles, because they need roads. The motorized recreation community nonetheless opposed the roadless initiative because they could only see it as a precursor to more Wilderness designations.

In contrast, the mountain bicycling community saw the roadless initiative as a great solution. It would protect a huge amount of public land from development, preserving the essence of wildness of those places, while allowing bicycling. The International Mountain Bicycling Association strongly endorsed the Roadless Initiative and supported efforts to defend it.

President George Bush sought to weaken the roadless initiative and preservation opponents fought it in federal courts. Today its legal status is somewhat murky. It perhaps is actually in effect, or it is in legal limbo, depending on who is doing the interpretation. What is needed is legislation, rather than a president's unilateral action. The United States Congress should pass a law that mandates the Clinton Roadless Initiative and extends it to the roadless lands of the Bureau of Land Management.

A roadless law would greatly reduce development pressures on this body of unprotected lands. Wilderness groups would still seek Wilderness designations, because that is their holy grail, but they could no longer argue that the lands in question are severely threatened.

The Roadless Initiative offers a perfect example of diverse designations. Mountain bikers should strongly support it.