Washington » Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Thursday issued a "time-out" on developing roadless areas in national forests, ordering a one-year ban on road building, logging or oil and gas exploration unless he gives the thumbs up himself.
The moratorium affects more than 4 million acres in Utah, or about half the state's forest area.
Vilsack's order temporarily halts a string of litigation over a wilderness conservation rule established in 2001 by President Bill Clinton and later supplanted by a new rule from President George W. Bush.
Clinton had sought to protect about 60 million acres inside federal forests nationwide from development with an umbrella ruling, which Bush later changed to a state-by-state management plan.
Vilsack said court rulings had created confusion with roadless areas and that by bringing the decision-making authority back to the department, more careful consideration can be given to activities in those areas.
"This interim directive will provide consistency and clarity that will help protect our national forests until a long-term roadless policy reflecting President Obama's commitment is developed," Vilsack said in a statement.
Environmental groups heralded Vilsack's decision as upholding the president's promise from the campaign trail, where he said he would "fight to protect roadless areas on Forest Service lands from all new road construction."
"We think this is an important first step in terms of protecting our national forests," said Jane Danowitz, director of the Pew Environment Group's U.S. public lands program. "The journey will be complete when President Obama fulfills his pledge to uphold the wilderness conservation areas."
But Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican and chairman of the Congressional Western Caucus, said Vilsack's decision is a step in the wrong direction and comes without consideration of the social and economic impact in the West.
"I believe stakeholders, local communities and state governors are in a better position to make forest-management decisions for forested lands in their backyards than distant bureaucrats in Washington," Bishop said.
"This is just one more example of the Obama administration choosing to centralize all decision making into a few hands in Washington while providing everyday citizens with fewer policy options and input," added Bishop, ranking republican on the House Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands.
Similarly, a spokesman for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States said the decision cuts the country's ability to tap abundant natural gas on public lands.
"Putting even more of our energy-rich public lands off-limits to development is contrary to the president's goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and will make us further dependent on unreliable foreign energy," said spokesman Jon Bargas.
Current Forest Service management plans ban road construction on 446,000 acres, or 11 percent of the forestland in the state, according to the Pew Environmental Group. Road building is allowed in 3.5 million acres, of 89 percent, the group says.
Utah has six national forests: Ashley, Dixie, Fishlake, Manti-LaSal, Uinta and Wasatch-Cache.