by Celia Ampel
A bill proposed in Congress on Tuesday would reverse a longstanding policy that protects 1.2 million acres of Arizona national forests from new road building and development. Conservation groups say the bill, called the Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act, ignores the ecological, recreational and economic benefits of unroaded areas.
In a hearing on Tuesday, House members listened to testimony on Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) legislation, dubbed the “Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act,” which seeks to abandon the popular Roadless Area Conservation Rule, an administrative policy that currently protects approximately 1.2 million acres of Arizona’s national forests from additional road building and development.
“Arizona’s forests are carved up with more than 51,000 miles of existing routes that impact important habitat for myriad species,” says Sam Frank, central Arizona director of the Arizona Wilderness Coalition (AWC), a statewide organization that restores and advocates for wilderness lands across the state. “The Coconino National Forest alone has nearly 6,000 miles of roads—that’s more than the mileage from San Francisco to New York and back. We don’t need laws that enable more destruction on our forests—we need policies based on sound science that support continued protection and enjoyment of our last quiet, wild places.” Frank leads AWC’s Wilderness Stewardship Program out of Prescott and made recommendations with Flagstaff partner Grand Canyon Wildlands Council for potential new wilderness areas to the Coconino National Forest as part of their forest planning, now underway.
The Roadless Rule, which underwent more than 600 public hearings across the country and stands as one of the most popular rule-makings in the Forest Service’s history, is intended to protect forested watersheds from further degradation while also conserving quiet recreation such as hiking, equestrian use, and wildlife watching—activities in Arizona that generate more than $5 billion in revenue to the state, according to a 2011 study by Arizona State University. The roadless rule policy, which is now 10 years old, marks a fiscally responsible response to a backlog of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of road maintenance and public safety improvements.