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Good News for Backcountry Recreation: Roadless Areas Will Remain Protected

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Roosevelt National Forest, Colorado; photograph by Thomas Neill, My Shot

Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered good news for outdoor recreation by doing nothing. Yep, the justices just sat on their heels and said there’s no point in arguing any more. I’m talking about roadless areas, a federal classification that includes 45 million acres of U.S. Forest Service land. What does this mean for you? Let me tell you. Chances are, you’ve had some epic adventures in roadless areas.

I’m guessing that most of the time when you’re having fun in the backcountry, you don’t give a whole lot of thought to the technical name for where you are. In fact, you probably take it for granted that there’s even a trail there at all. I don’t blame you. I do the same. But the truth is, our country’s amazing outdoor recreation opportunities are the result of a lot of hard work.

So just what the heck are “roadless areas?” They’re pristine backcountry areas that have few roads or other significant alterations other than trails. They provide critical wildlife habitat as well as outstanding primitive outdoor recreation. Roadless areas offer a similar level of protection as wilderness (which is the most strict level of federal protection, requiring an act of Congress), yet they allow for some additional recreation. Think mountain bikes and snowmobiles (only on designated trails, of course).

The cool thing about roadless areas is that they don’t take an act of Congress to designate. Any president can create new roadless areas with the stroke of a pen. This is exactly what President Clinton did shortly before he left office. His 2001 Roadless Rule designated 58 million acres of roadless areas—roughly one-third of America’s national forests. That’s a great big playground, if you ask me!

I don’t mean to downplay the careful thought that went into this. Clinton’s Roadless Rule was the result of the largest public lands review process in U.S. history, including more than 1.2 million comments and 600 public hearings. A lot of people who know a lot more about forests than Bill thought this was a very good idea.

When George W. Bush took the reigns, he created a policy where individual states could petition to override the federal rule and designate their own roadless policies. This opens the door to a bit more interpretation about what uses are okay. In the years that followed, Colorado and Idaho successfully enacted their own rules on their collective 13.2 million acres of roadless areas.

The fear with these state rules is that there’s opportunity to downgrade protection. This could lead to more development—such as roads, powerlines and mining—that fragments the land and diminishes backcountry values and recreation experiences. For this reason, Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) and others have been fighting for a decade to uphold the federal roadless rule and not allow states to have their own way.

Now there’s good news. After years of back and forth—replete with petitions, court cases, and rulings—the U.S. Supreme Court ended the squabbling. The high court had been asked to review (and possibly overturn) a lower court decision that upheld the original 2001 rule. Fortunately, the Supreme Court said no thanks. So the lower ruling holds, meaning the federal 2001 Roadless Rule stands as the law of the land.

I know all of this federal policy mumbo jumbo can be tough to comprehend. Heck, I work at OIA, and even I have a hard time wrapping my head around all of the intricacies at times. So let me talk for a second about a specific example in my backyard.

Arapahoe-Roosevelt National Forest, west of my hometown of Boulder, comes to mind. The highest points of this forest span the Indian Peaks Wilderness, a stunning mountain playground dotted with alpine lakes and pierced by high peaks. This is where I go to escape civilization on foot. Flanking this wilderness to the east is a roadless area that includes one of my favorite local mountain bike trails—Sourdough. Winding up and down forested slopes, this spectacular trail darts through glimmering aspen groves and provides a world of fun 45 minutes from my back door. So there you have it, wilderness and roadless areas: close neighbors—cousins even—sharing similar lineage yet not cut of quite the same cloth. Between the two, they offer a spectrum of recreation opportunities that delight outdoor-loving Americans.

The Supreme Court decision means that 45 million acres of federal roadless areas will continue to offer true backcountry experiences, not to mention valuable wildlife habitat and scenic views. (For those of you who are counting, that’s the original 58 million acres minus Colorado and Idaho’s 13 million acres.)

This is a major win, protecting these places for future generations. Once we allow mining, logging or other development in pristine areas, we can never turn back the dial of time. So the moral of the story today is that sometimes doing nothing is the best action of all.

Avery Stonich is communications manager for Outdoor Industry Association. Follow us on twitter: @OIA and @averystonich