Bush plans to relax 'roadless rule' - Governors could get wilderness areas opened to development
Washington -- The Bush administration proposed on Monday relaxing a Clinton-era rule that barred road-building and logging on 58 million acres of federal forests, giving governors broad new discretion to determine what lands should be set aside as wilderness.
The proposal would allow Western governors, many of whom opposed the so- called roadless rule, to petition the Forest Service to exempt federal lands in their state from wilderness designation. The agency also plans to eliminate the ban on road building in millions of acres in two national forests in Alaska.
Administration officials said the proposal still would protect most of the nation's remaining old-growth forests, while giving states the chance to urge that other wild forest areas be opened to development.
"We look at this as a real opportunity to engage the states as partners in deciding where improvements to the rule can be made on a limited basis," Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who oversees the Forest Service, said Monday in announcing the proposal.
But environmentalists criticized the plan as an attempt to gut a rule that protects one-third of the nation's forests -- about 2 percent of the nation -- including more than 4 million acres in California.
"This is clear attempt by the Bush administration to riddle the Roadless Area Conservation Rule full of holes," said Sean Cosgrove, the Sierra Club's national forest policy specialist.
"To go ahead and allow individual governors to apply to have national forests in their state removed from the roadless rule is completely unheard of, " Cosgrove said. "These are national forests, they are not to be managed by individual governors."
In the short term, the new policy will likely have little effect on California, which has 4,416,000 acres of roadless land spread among its 20.6 million acres of national forests. Aides to Gov. Gray Davis said he has no plans to ask the federal government to exclude any wild areas in California from the roadless rule.
"What we think is important in California is focusing fire-risk reduction where the risk to private property and public safety is the most significant, and that is around communities," said Louis Blumberg, deputy director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "That tends not to be in roadless areas."'
But environmentalists warned the new policy could allow future governors to reopen the state's forests to road-building and other development.
"It means the roadless rule in California could change dramatically over time given who sits in the governor's office," said Jay Watson, Western regional director for the Wilderness Society.
The ban on road building was among the most far-reaching of Clinton's environmental initiatives. Approved in January 2001 just before he left office,
it was hailed by environmentalists as a way to protect old-growth forests from logging, mining and other development.
But timber industry officials and many Western lawmakers warned the policy would hurt rural economies and increase the risk of the wildfires and filed suit to block it. The Bush administration, aligning itself with critics of the policy, began a review of the rule and refused to strenuously defend the policy in court.
A federal judge in Idaho in May 2001 blocked the Forest Service from implementing the roadless rule. But, in a victory for environmentalists, the U. S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco upheld the rule in December.
A temporary Forest Service rule that allowed some road-building expires on Saturday, prompting administration officials to announce the new policy.
Under the proposed rule, governors would be able to ask to build roads in remote areas under "exceptional circumstances" -- such as thinning forests to reduce fire risk or improving access to dams or to private property.
Timber industry officials generally praised the Bush administration's new effort. However, a California timber industry official questioned whether the decisions to ask for exemptions should be given to governors instead of local land managers working in the national forests.
"It's very much good public policy to involve state and local government in these types of decisions," said David Bischel, president of the California Forestry Association. "(But) I think the jury is still out whether there is a viable approach here. . . . It may end up being a political decision rather than a resource decision."
The administration announced the new policy as part of a settlement with the state of Alaska, which sued to block the roadless rule from going into effect there. As part of the settlement, the agency agreed to exempt the Tongass National Forest and the Chugach National Forest from the ban on road construction.
The decision could allow logging of old growth in the Tongass, the largest national forest in the country. The roadless rule set aside 9.7 million acres of the forest as off limits, and about 5 million acres in the Chugach.
Rey said pre-existing forest management plans would assure that 95 percent of the two forests would be protected. However, he acknowledged the move was likely to immediately open 300,000 acres on the Tongass to logging projects.
Conservation groups argued that heavy logging in the most sensitive areas of the Tongass could endanger Alaskan brown bears, bald eagles, wolves and other species.
"The really valuable trees for logging and for wildlife habitat are these stands of huge old spruce trees that occur in the lower elevation valley bottoms," said Tom Waldo, attorney for Earthjustice. "It's really a small percentage of the forest, but that is where they do the timber sales. It's also the biological heart of the forest because it's the area that's most important for wildlife that depend on old-growth conditions."
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