This decision represents the first approval under Vilsack's May 2009 memorandum reserving decision-making authority to approve or disapprove timber contracts in roadless areas. This policy is the latest turn in the evolution of the 2001 Roadless Rule, which was permanently enjoined by a 2008 Wyoming District Court decision roughly 18 months after the District Court for the Northern District of California enjoined the Forest Service from taking any action contrary to the 2001 Roadless Rule, leaving the Forest Service in a bit of a quandary.
Vilsack's May 2009 memorandum reportedly drew some praise from environmentalists and democrats, apparently banking on Obama's campaign promises to support the roadless rule. The decision to move forward with the Orion North sale has drawn sharp criticism from environmentalists and others. For example, the Environmental News Service quotes Carol Cairnes, president of the board of the Ketchikan-based Tongass Conservation Society: "The day when this kind of timber sale made sense is long gone. . . . Cutting these trees will not even bring in half the money the Forest Service will spend building a road to get to the trees." The sale will require building or updating eight miles of roads, which Tom Waldo of Earthjustice (which was challenging the Orion North sale prior to Vilsack's decision) states will cost four times as much as the profit from the sale. According to the Juneau Empire, the approval was driven by the secretary's recognition of "how much people in the area needed the jobs and the economic boost."
In reporting the Orion North sale, MongaBay.com reports: "The U.S. has the world's seventh highest rate of primary forest loss in the world. Between 2000 and 2005, the United States lost an average of 831 square miles (215,200 hectares) of "primary forest" -- defined as forests with no visible signs of past or present human activities." The website, an exceptional source of biodiversity-related news, then notes the high biodiversity levels found in primary forests, as well as their priority place in conservationists' agendas. Indeed, primary forests frequently provide irreplaceable services (see here for a freely-available study of tropical forests reaching this conclusion).
The Orion North sale tempers my enthusiasm at seeing the WOPR withdrawal, and gives me concern for the future of "balancing" irreplaceable remnants of national forests against temporary and questionable economic benefits. Hopefully, the 2001 Roadless Rule will be re-instated, or the administration will otherwise move toward a uniform approach to logging that favors primary forest preservation and works to concentrate logging in secondary forests without particularly important ecologial benefits and to existing timber plantations.