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ALLEGHENY'S FUTURE, AND OTHERS, DEPEND ON 'STRATEGIC PLAN'

As we teeter on the brink of a new century, consider the environmental triumphs and tragedies of this one, marked as much by environmental damage as it was by the development of a conservation conscience.

Take 1905 for example: As Teddy Roosevelt was pushing hard for national parks and forests, the Russo-Japanese War rocked the world.

By 1914, Henry Ford's Model T was opening up the wonders of the Earth and expanding outdoor recreation and World War I started.

The list goes on with pluses for every minus. Take Africa: By the 1920s the great Safari Cult peaked, spawning great literature but decimating some species. That, in turn, eventually led to the establishment of the great game parks on that continent, now mostly aimed at eco-tourism.

Conservation here seemed to hit rock bottom in the "Dirty Thirties" when severe dust-bowl drought ravaged our heartland. As a result, Ducks Unlimited and the National Wildlife Federation were born, as was the Soil and Water Conservation Service.

While we have established a lot of national forests, parks, reserves and monuments in the 20th century, we have not stopped "urban and suburban sprawl."

Right here in Western New York, the population of has dropped significantly over the last 30 years. But we keep building malls, plazas and subdivisions further out into what once was farm and field.

This troubled century has given us a host of disposal problems too, -- oil, chemical and nuclear waste -- and created challenges for folks who care, thus spawning all sorts of eco-groups.

It has also seen the clear-cut goals of Gifford Pinchot, the U.S. Forest Service founder, get mired down in a bureaucratic morass.

Pinchot wanted to preserve clean water and save the environment through scientific timber harvest -- in contrast to the slash and burn practices of the 19th century.

But that has been subverted by an ever-thickening layer of bureaucratic gobbledeygook from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the national forests. For the last 20 years the top brass has been beavering away at a "fundamental change in philosophy" about how it will manage them. Until fairly recently these vast tracts have provided corporate welfare to the timber industry.

The new goal, called a "strategic plan," may put recreation, fisheries and wildlife on an equal footing with extracting logs and minerals.

I say "may" because even though Forest Service chief Mike Dombeck banned any new logging roads until September, the strategic planning document appears to be so loose that it looks like it could be used to justify almost any action by any forest manager.

Environmental activists are wading through this and interpreting it for their members. Reading the gobbledeygook (which is instantly available at www.fs.fed.us/forum/nepa/rule) gave me a headache.

Let me pose an example of the "may" that's close: Allegheny National Forest, just over the Pennsylvania line.

Some 20 years ago, the USDA told forest managers to devise long-term master plans that would lead to sustaining BOTH recreational and money-making uses of the woods.

Allegheny, a half-million acres of woods, glens and rivers, published at least 20 pounds of material in creating its master plan.

I am sure that the Sierra Club and the Adirondack Mountain Club would have preferred "Alternative A" that emphasized "non-market benefits to society that do not return dollars to the U.S. Treasury." Like hiking, hunting and birding.

To achieve that, half the forest would have been managed for semi-primitive recreation, with more hiking trails, but no off-road vehicle use and the woods would have been managed to produce larger trees by selective cutting. Timber sales would be lower for at least five years and wildlife habitat, especially fisheries management, would have been improved.

Instead, after all the appropriate "input," the forest managers chose to allow "moderate increases" in facilities including small campgrounds and boat launches along rivers and a new motel/restaurant. Some new foot trails have been or will be built under the master plan, and "semi-primitive" recreation in the rest of the forest will see an eventual doubling of ORV trails. Timber management is to be "increased significantly," by clearcutting and shelterwood harvesting methods, although that's been modified somewhat, spokesmen say.

There are some roadless areas in Allegheny -- 35,500 acres, about 5 percent of the total -- and no plans to do anything there.

I don't know that we "need" more wilderness than that, just as I don't know if we "need" more places to ride ORVs or Jeeps in Allegheny National Forest. But I do know each national forest has to be managed in part for ecology, in part because of its population/recreation pressures and in part because Congress says it has to make money to help pay its own way.

That's been built into the system by generations of paper shufflers who say that with a master plan in place there may be no reason to change anything in Allegheny.

Nationwide, however, there is that moratorium on roads that keeps all roadless areas sheltered until September: Approximately 60 million acres, 31 percent of all National Forest, is roadless now, but has not been made part of the National Wilderness Preservation System.

The Wilderness Society suggests we preserve those acres as is, and is leading an effort to get comments to the USDA to that effect.

Take a look at the strategic plan -- which also is in the federal register, at Forest Service offices and some libraries.

Decide if you want to ask the USDA to keep those acres untouched except by foot, canoe and packhorse -- or not. You have until Feb. 3 to comment.

Frankly, I'm for wilderness simply because they are not making any more of it, and I'd rather not make decisions for the folks who will live through most of the 21st Century.

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