One of Barack Obama's campaign promises involved protecting roadless areas in national forests, a boon to environmentalists who have long complained that the Bush administration violated a rule preventing road construction.
Before we delve into where Obama stands on the issue, here's some important background on the Roadless Area Conservation Rule. It was created in the last days of the Clinton administration, protecting about 58 million acres of pristine land in national forests in 39 states from logging, mining and road building. Environmentalists contend such activities have the potential to destroy old-growth ecosystems, pollute water and increase the risk of forest fires.
In 2004, the Bush administration said it would overturn the rule and replace the policy with one that would allow governors to petition the government to prevent logging in roadless areas. And before Bush left office, his administration pushed through exemptions for large portions of the forest system, including the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, as well as forests in Idaho, that made them vulnerable to logging and road construction in the future.
When Obama took office, he gave Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack sole authority to green-light any proposals to build roads or harvest timber in most of the areas covered by the rule, essentially halting any near-term development of most of the land covered by the rule.
These actions drew universal praise from environmentalists.
But at the same time, Vilsack approved a longstanding timber sale proposal in the Tongass. (In early December, a court halted the sale.)
Then, in August, two key legal actions were taken. First, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found that the Bush administration violated the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act by replacing the Roadless Rule with the state petition process. And just a week later, environmentalsts scored another victory when the Obama administration said it would appeal a 2008 U.S. District Court decision in Wyoming that struck down the roadless rule.
So though the Obama administration has said it intends to uphold the Clinton-era rule, it did agree to allow the development in the Tongass. That exception has caused some environmentalists to have mixed feelings about the Obama administration's record.
Michael Francis, the Wilderness Society"s national forest program director, says he thinks Obama has lived up to his pledge. He said that after the 2008 election, members of the conservation community came up with three goals for the new administration: First, they wanted Obama to halt development, which he did by giving Vilsack authority to approve new projects, Francis said. Then, they wanted the administration to join with environmentalists in challenging state efforts to strike down the ban, which the Justice Department did in August.
"And then there was a request to remove the Tongass exemption, and we're still advocating for it," said Francis. But all in all, Obama has lived up to his promise to "fight to protect roadless areas on Forest Service lands from all new road construction," Francis said.
Rolf Skar, senior forest campaigner for Greenpeace, isn't sold.
"It's a mixed record because of that one exemption, green-lighting logging in Tongass," Skar said. "If there's wiggle room, we're going to still keep seeing these proposals. ... Obama's signaled that, 'If it's a tough political sell, we'll cave in on this and let you go.' "
So on one hand, environmentalists are praising Obama's record on the roadless rule, and on the other hand they say there's still work to do. Because Obama hasn't been able to please everyone on this front, we're moving this promise to a Compromise.