The lasting impact of Thursday's announcement of revamped rules, which had prevented roadways from being constructed in more than 58 million acres of pristine national forest land, opens the door to development, although the market for commodities, such as timber and natural gas, will dictate the actual level of that development.
"I think that you will see more oil and gas drilling, but that depends on the market," Chris Taylor, vice president of Trout Unlimited, said on a conference call Thursday. "What this rule does, is make it (the drilling) possible to do it and to do it with less restriction."
The U.S. Forest Service said unlocking the lands currently protected under President Bill Clinton's 2001 order brings its policy in line with the multi-use purpose of the national forest system, which is different from the more heavily protected national parks system.
National forests long have been sources of trees for the timber industry and miners, and more recently they have became a focus for the energy industry due to their promising reserves of oil and natural gas.
"The lands affected by the roadless rule were projected to hold 11 trillion cubic feet of needed domestic natural gas," Barry Russell, president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said in a statement. "We must find a way to eliminate government obstacles and regulatory complexity so that our national resources can be produced and provide the enormous amounts of energy that will be required over the next decade and beyond."
Increasing domestic production of gas and oil has been a keystone of President Bush's strategy to meet an ever-growing energy demand. With prices for both oil and natural gas at relatively high levels, it would appear in general the time is right for drillers to make the investments needed to sink new wells in remote areas.
Although the energy industry had no immediate statistics on the number of projects firmly slated for roadless areas, attorney Jim Angell of the environmental group Earthjustice said there appeared to be a degree of anticipation among the drilling community seeking to jump in while the price of gas was right.
"Particularly in Colorado and Utah, we are already seeing oil and gas projects going forward even before the rule was announced," Angell told reporters. "I am assuming that activity will speed up."
Angell said the roadless rule never explicitly barred energy exploration in national forests, but it did make it virtually impossible by banning construction of roads needed for the heavy trucks that haul equipment and roughnecks into the remote prospects.
Roads, critics contend, not only knock down two-lane swaths of trees, but also cause runoff that pollutes creeks and lakes, and also can disrupt wildlife that can't handle much human activity.
"What the rule said was, 'No new roads,'" Angell said. "Those roads themselves badly impact the environment."
The roadless rule nevertheless fell victim to the historic function of the national forest system, which gives industry access to natural resources; the law was struck down in federal court in 2003.
The Forest Service said it would take comments on the proposed new rule for 18 months, including those from governors of the affected states. Thoughout that period interim measures protecting roadless lands would remain in place.
The consensus among environmentalists Thursday was that there would be opposition from western governors to the changes, and that court challenges would be inevitable.
Meanwhile, the door has been swung open to energy exploration, leaving the economics of the energy marketplace as the primary determiner of when and where any drilling will actually take place.
Hil Anderson is UPI's Chief Energy Correspondent. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org