Cantwell Announces Legislation to Permanently Preserve Pristine National Forest Lands

Bill would codify Roadless Rule, which protects almost 60 million acres of America’s last remaining wild forestlands, including 2 million acres in Washington state

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, on the twentieth anniversary of the 2001 Roadless Rule, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), a senior member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, joined U.S. Representative Ruben Gallego (D, AZ-07) and many other members of Congress in announcing a renewed push to enshrine roadless rule protections into law. 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 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”, said Senator Cantwell. “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 twentieth 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.”

For two decades, the Roadless Rule has shielded some of the most pristine and treasured areas within the National Forest System from roadbuilding and logging. The Roadless Area Conservation Act would codify the 2001 Roadless Rule, which was developed by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) during the Clinton administration and finalized after several years of deliberation and 600 public meetings in local communities nationwide, including 28 hearings in Washington state. 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%—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% oppose 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 codifying 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 and more than 350 communities across the United States. The legislation would maintain the flexibility engrained 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, and other circumstances like the need to build new road connections between remote communities.

The Roadless Area Conservation Act of 2021 would:

  • Protect, in perpetuity, 58.5 million acres of roadless national forest in 39 states;
  • Ensure the more than 240 million people living within 100 miles of a national forest or national grassland retain access to opportunities for outdoor recreation, including hiking, camping, hunting, fishing, mountain biking, and backcountry skiing;
  • Safeguard watersheds in national forests and roadless areas that provide clean drinking water for over 60 million Americans;
  • Save taxpayers millions of dollars by limiting costly new road building, allow the Forest Service to focus on maintaining its existing 371,581-mile network of National Forest System roads, and reduce its $3 billion backlog of deferred maintenance on its existing road system;
  • Maintain exemptions for hydropower development, public safety, and firefighting needs;
  • Uphold the 9th and 10th U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals decisions, as well as a decision by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, in support of the Roadless Rule.

Senate cosponsor of the Roadless Area Conservation Act of 2021 include Cory Booker (D-NJ), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Tina Smith (D-MN), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Ron Wyden (D-OR). The measure is also supported by a wide range of stakeholders including Alaska Natives, commercial fishermen, conservationists, small businesses, and climate advocates.

Senator Cantwell has been the lead Senate champion of the Roadless Rule since it was overturned by the Bush Administration in 2001. Cantwell has repeatedly introduced legislation to codify the Roadless Rule into law, including as early as 2001. Cantwell has also been a vociferous and persistent critic of the Trump administration’s elimination of roadless protections for the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, and in October, after blasting the decision as “environmental corruption,” Cantwell led a bicameral letter to Agriculture Secretary Perdue in opposition to the decision.