Lawmakers offer bipartisan bill to 'protect' U.S. forests - Road construction and development would be banned on nearly 60 million acres



WASHINGTON A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Wednesday said Congress would overwhelmingly pass new legislation banning road construction in millions of acres of national forests, although they doubted the bill would be supported by Bush administration.

The bill would require the federal government to honor a Clinton-era plan to restrict the development of most roads on nearly 60 million acres (24 million hectares) of U.S. forest land.

Under the plan, pristine forest lands could only be disturbed if natural disasters such as fires threaten area residents and wildlife.

The legislation has already attracted broad support in the Republican-led House. More than 170 lawmakers, including 17 Republicans, back the plan. "If we have that vote, we will win it and send it to the president for his signature," said Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat, has said she will soon introduce similar legislation in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Signed just days before Clinton left office, the rule dealt a serious blow to U.S. timber, mining, and oil companies, which cannot move in heavy equipment or remove resources without roads.

The Bush administration has given conflicting signals, saying it would move forward with the plan to ban new roads in forests but also modify the rule to allow local input so changes are made on a forest-by-forest basis.

Mark Rey, U.S. Agriculture Department undersecretary for natural resources, told a house panel in May that the Forest Service will issue proposed rule changes in "late fall" of this year. The U.S. Forest Service is part of the USDA.

Bush's environmental policy has been criticized by environmental groups for catering to big businesses while failing to protect forest land from development. "We'd like the president to join rather than get in the way of that rule," said Jay Islee, a Washington Democrat who co-sponsored the bill with New York Republican Sherwood Boehlert. "But we have to make sure to protect these forests no matter which way the wind blows in the White House," Islee said, adding that opposition from the administration "is a possibility."

More than 2 million letters and faxes have been received by the USDA supporting the road ban, the largest outpouring of comments on a federal environmental measure. "Today shows that Congress is really working to represent the wishes of the American people," said Tiernan Sittenfeld, spokeswoman for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

The Bush administration has blamed the delays and much of the controversy in the rule on the Clinton administration for poor environmental planning.

Last year, U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge in Boise, Idaho, blocked the Bush administration from carrying out the rule, calling the administration's proposal to modify the rule a ''Band-Aid approach.''

The case was appealed by environmental groups and is now before a federal appeals court in San Francisco.

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