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Forest Fodder

A group claims keeping wildlands pristine will lead to an economic windfall

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We're perched amid the trappings of outdoorsy retail--nylon fly above, collapsible chairs beneath--to make a fiscal point. And for the same reason, we're enjoying these camping accouterments inside the Summit Hut on Speedway Boulevard rather than at some sublime forest glen.

Here's the point: There's money to be made from folks who frequent Arizona's national forests--money to the tune of $2.2 billion each year.

Apparently, this news doesn't spike media Richter scales: Only one reporter has shown up for the Sept. 27 press conference, called by the Environment Arizona Research and Policy Center. But armed with numbers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the group argues that keeping our forests wild is economically savvier than digging them up or cutting them down.

That throws industry's traditional rhetoric on its ear. But it gets more specific: Protecting our natural cash cows also means keeping them roadless--or at least not adding any more roads. And this catapults the whole issue straight into the big leagues.

Near the end of his tenure--following three years of intense review and scads of public meetings--President Bill Clinton invoked the Roadless Area Conservation Rule. The administrative measure placed roughly one-third of federal forest land off limits to mining, logging and road building.

But George Bush had a different take, and his administration sacked the rule four years later. Few were surprised; in its brief existence, the roadless measure had been fought by several states, lambasted by extractive industries and twice overturned in federal court. It was hardly the darling of a conservative president.

Administration officials defended their move by contending that states should decide where logging, mining and accompanying roads were allowed. But conservationists feared the states were more directly vulnerable to the entreaties of business, and the result would be a national patchwork of policies.

In response to its actions, the administration received a record number of comments--1.8 million--from concerned citizens. Of those, 95 percent supported restoring the Roadless Rule.

Researchers, meanwhile, concluded that forest areas untouched by roads were more likely to host vibrant ecosystems with diverse plants and animals. And they noted that about 60 million Americans get their clean drinking water from largely untrammeled forests.

Still, the administration's stance hardly occurred in a vacuum. Since taking office, President Bush has steadily reduced protections for endangered species and the environment. Consider his "Healthy Forests Initiative," which fast-tracks the permitting process for logging on public lands. Administration officials say the measure helps prevent fires through forest trimming. Critics call it a thinly veiled industry giveaway.

Those critics point to a December 2004 gathering of timber executives, where speakers included former timber lobbyist and current Forest Service chief Mark Rey. To an enthusiastic crowd, Rey boasted that logging on public lands would double during the Bush administration's second term.

That's no offhand pledge; the Forest Service has already planned new roads--many of them for logging--to traverse 34 million publicly owned acres. Taxpayers have already shelled out nearly $50 million just for roads into Alaska's Tongass National Forest. And the Forest Service has spent millions more subsidizing the construction of new timber roads under various credit programs.

But this raucous party crashed to a halt in September 2006, when yet another federal court reinstated the Roadless Rule. According to San Francisco Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Laporte, President Bush violated both the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act by imposing a new policy without assessing its environmental impacts.

Like tipsy revelers hamstrung between more beer or bedtime, the administration and its industry allies are mulling over options. In the meantime, lower-profile efforts to re-reverse the Roadless Rule are underway; this year, Vice President Cheney's home state of Wyoming filed its second challenge to the law in federal court. (The first challenge had been upheld, but became moot once Bush unilaterally discarded the rule.)

All of which brings us back to the Summit Hut on Speedway. In this interim between court decisions, groups like Environment Arizona are pushing the point that roadless forests are worth protecting--in more ways than one.

And despite its focus-groupy name, Environment Arizona has tapped potent truths. In a concise, crisp report, EA simply argues against killing the golden goose of pristine forests. "It gets back to factoring where the real economic benefit is," says spokesman Erik Magnuson.

"Is the benefit more from mining or more from ecotourism?" he asks. "This report shows there is much more to be gained from noninvasive wilderness protection than from strip-mining."

A call to the National Mining Association for its opinion wasn't returned.

But David Baker, owner of Summit Hut, could be a walking billboard for the economics of preservation. Baker says Hut customers come from across the country to Arizona's wildlands. And they spread their money around at restaurants and hotels--and in his shop. "Technical rock climbers, hikers, backpackers, birders, hunters, even people coming to observe rare species of reptiles," he says. "It's across the board, but the common theme is that people are interested in wild areas. It's a huge draw."

Not that Baker thinks all forests should be locked up. "Balance is achievable and desirable," he says. "But to diminish or pooh-pooh the value of wildlands because that's something you don't have an interest in, that's one-sided, too."

But if change starts at the top, it's starting disingenuously, says Magnuson. For example, "the Bush administration's entire plan, their Healthy Forests Initiative, is really just about logging. We need to be vigilant about attempts like that to subvert the will of the people."

And so efforts to show the other side of forest conservation will continue, he says. "Our intent is to make sure we have a commitment to preserving our wilderness. Because if we don't have that commitment, corporate interests are going to push for more roads, to do more logging and mining. And in the long run, that is going to jeopardize the tourism that we have here."

That's $2.2 billion worth of jeopardy, to be exact.

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