Sen. Cantwell announces bill to preserve pristine National Forest System lands

The Chronicle

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, along with other members of Congress, announced a renewed push to protect nearly 60 million acres of America’s last remaining wild forestlands, including 2 million acres in Washington state.

The Roadless Area Conservation Act of 2021 would permanently protect 58.5 million of acres of national forest from logging and development — more than 31 percent of America’s National Forest System — including the South Quinault Ridge in Northwest Washington, the Dark Divide in Southwest Washington, The Kettle Range in Northeast Washington and much of the Methow Valley Headwaters in Central Washington.

The Tuesday announcement came on the 20th anniversary of the 2001 Roadless Rule, which prohibited road construction and timber harvesting on 58.5 million acres of roadless areas on National Forest System lands.

“The looming climate crisis has only increased the need to protect America’s last remaining wild forestlands, which reduce wildland fire risk and store huge amounts of carbon”, Cantwell said in a press release. “Roadless areas provide Washingtonians with unmatched outdoor recreation opportunities, clean drinking water for our communities and habitat for numerous endangered species. As we mark the 20th anniversary of this landmark proposal, we need to redouble our efforts to permanently preserve the benefits these public lands provide our nation and future generations.”

The Roadless Area Conservation Act of 2021 would codify the 2001 Roadless Rule, which was developed by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) during the Clinton administration.

More than 2.5 million Americans submitted comments on the Roadless Forest Protection Rule since 1999, and more than 80,000 comments came from citizens in Washington state. The overwhelming majority of comments submitted — more than 95 percent — were in support of protecting roadless areas.

A March 2019 poll by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that three out of four respondents said they supported keeping roadless forest protections, while only 16 percent opposed it. That level of support changed little between respondents living in rural or non-rural areas, and across party affiliation and political views.

Over the past two decades, the Roadless Rule has prevailed over numerous court challenges and administrative and legislative attacks. However, the Trump administration has weakened the rule and, in October 2020, the administration removed roadless protections for over 9 million acres of pristine forest lands in the Tongass National Forest, threatening old-growth forest and Southeast Alaska’s robust tourism and fishing economies.

By placing the rule into law — including in the Tongass — the Roadless Area Conservation Act would uphold recreational access to public lands, preserve the habitats of 1,600 at-risk species, reduce the risk of wildfires, aid in the fight against climate change by preserving vast carbon sinks and safeguard watersheds that provide clean drinking water for more than 60 million Americans in 39 states.

The legislation would maintain the flexibility ingrained in the Roadless Rule, which allows for continued forest management and the construction of roads as needed to address fires, floods, or other catastrophic events.