KETCHUM, Idaho An official with an environmental group that was one of 50 organizations to attack Idaho's proposed roadless plan in March says recent changes made to the plan by a federal advisory committee are an improvement but will mean little because they will likely be ignored by the Bush administration.
"I think the administration will ignore any recommendations from the advisory group and go ahead with their mission to hand over the keys of millions of acres of national forests," said Paul Spitler, public lands director for the Center for Biological Diversity, based in Tucson, Ariz.
The federal Roadless Area Conservation National Advisory Committee, in a May 30 letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Edward Schafer, suggested moving 200,000 acres in Idaho out of the general forest category and into the more protective "backcountry restoration" category.
"Management flexibility for protecting communities from fire is important," the committee wrote.
But environmental groups say backcountry restoration is a catchall term that could allow logging and other uses because it allows temporary road building to protect public health and safety "in cases of significant risk or imminent threat of flood, fire or other catastrophic event."
The Bush administration is expected to approve Idaho's roadless plan before Bush leaves office early next year.
Spitler said lawsuits will likely follow if the plan doesn't contain adequate protection for the state's national forests.
Just before he left office in January 2001, President Clinton issued the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, banning development and road building on almost one-third of the nation's 192 million acres of national forest land.
The Bush administration repealed the rule in 2005 and issued a new policy requiring states to work with U.S. Forest Service officials to devise management plans for individual forests. The federal committee advises Schafer on the roadless plans submitted by states.
Some states, including Washington, Oregon and California, have sued to challenge the Bush policy.
Idaho, though, submitted a roadless plan in 2006. Idaho's 9.3 million acres of roadless areas is second only to Alaska, where 14.8 million acres are designated as roadless.
At a January public hearing in Washington, D.C., Idaho Lt. Gov. Jim Risch said the state's plan would protect remote forests while allowing some activities in areas that should never have been designated as road-free in the first place.
In March, the Center for Biological Diversity, with the support of other environmental groups, released a report that said the Idaho plan would allow eight times more logging than the 2001 rule. It also said the plan would allow a fourfold increase in road building, an increase of 545 million tons of phosphate mining, and would open 609,500 acres to other mining, oil and gas exploration, and development.
Jonathan Oppenheimer of the Idaho Conservation League said the latest changes to the plan suggested by the federal advisory committee are a good step.
"We're certainly encouraged," he told the Idaho Mountain Express.
He said the group is waiting for the final draft of the Idaho roadless rule before it makes a decision about whether to support it.