Administration announces no more "roadless" rule for forests
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman proposed replacing the Clinton rule with a policy that would allow governors to petition the federal government if they wished to keep certain areas roadless. She said this approach, outlined two weeks ago in the Federal Register, would encourage cooperation between state and federal officials and end the litigation that has dogged Clinton's "roadless" rule.
"The prospect of endless lawsuits represents neither progress nor certainty for communities," Veneman said in a news conference yesterday in Idaho, which has more roadless land than any other state in the lower 48. "Our announcements today illustrate our commitment to working closely with the nation's governors to meet the needs of local communities, and to maintaining the undeveloped character of the most pristine areas of the national forest system."
Western states and timber companies had challenged the roadless rule in six different courts. The regulation, put in place before Clinton left office in January 2001, prohibited development in areas spanning more than 5,000 acres, accounting for nearly a third of the national forests. Twelve Western states are home to 97 percent of all roadless areas, some of which provide drinking water to local communities.
More than half of the 3.5 million acres of roadless forest in Washington and Oregon already is off-limits to road-building under individual management plans for the region's national forests. About 750,000 acres, mostly in Oregon, are not, and hundreds of thousands of acres are in areas designated for timber harvest.
If the Bush administration rule is finalized before the end of the year, Washington Gov. Gary Locke will urge the White House to keep those lands road-free.
"If the rule is implemented, we would petition for roadless designations for Washington lands, if that's the only avenue we have," said Glenn Kupper, spokesman for the Democratic governor.
But Mike Anderson, an analyst with The Wilderness Society in Seattle, said nothing in the Bush plan requires the Forest Service to heed any governor's request.
"If you look closely at the wording, there's nothing in the rule that prevents the Forest Service from saying, 'Thanks for your input, but we're going to log it anyway,' " he said.
Linda Goodman, who oversees Washington and Oregon for the Forest Service, said, "I don't specifically have the answers on what would happen if we disagree with the governors. What we would hope is that we'll be working locally to figure out what is best for local communities and for the state."
James Connaughton, who chairs the White House Council on Environmental
Quality, said the administration is more focused on issues such as
fire prevention and safety than economic development in the forests.
"It's another case of the Bush administration having happy talk on the environment, but it's basically rape and pillage," said Doug Honnold, an attorney for Earthjustice. "The broader debate is should [national forests] be devoted to development and corporate subsidies, or should they be set aside for amenity uses like wildlife protection and places where people can go to avoid the crush of civilization."
Timber organizations hailed yesterday's announcement, saying the Clinton administration had excluded them from the process when it drafted the rule.
"There weren't maps we could comment on, it was one-size-fits-all, and they didn't thoroughly analyze the consequences," said Chris West, vice president of the American Forests Resource Council, which represents 80 forest-product manufacturers and landowners.
Seattle Times staff reporter Craig Welch contributed to this report.
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