Bush administration to let states seek relief from roadless rule
June 10, 2003
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Bush administration said Monday it will propose a rule change allowing governors to seek exemptions from a policy blocking road-building in remote areas of national forests.
Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey said the proposed change would allow states to play a greater role in land-use decisions that affect them.
The roadless rule, which blocks development on 58 million acres of federal land, "is the law of the land,"' Rey said, "but we will leave it up to the governors to see where on a limited basis relief might be appropriate."
Critics called the plan a giveaway to the timber industry, noting that Republican governors in many Western states have long opposed the roadless rule. Several states, including Idaho and Utah, have challenged the rule in court and are likely to seek exemptions from the rule, environmentalists said.
Mike Anderson of The Wilderness Society called the announcement "a total undermining of the roadless rule," adding that it was "a pretty shocking reversal" from a statement Rey made last week.
Rey told reporters June 4 that a temporary rule allowing some exceptions to the roadless rule will not be renewed when it expires June 14. The decision effectively reinstated the Clinton-era rule, which blocks development on a third of federal forests, Rey said.
But in a surprise announcement Monday, Rey said the roadless rule will be amended this fall to allow exemptions for individual states.
Rey also said the administration had settled a lawsuit filed by Alaska challenging the road-building ban. As part of the settlement, the administration has agreed to exempt the Tongass and Chugach national forests from the revised roadless rule, Rey said.
As a practical matter, 95 percent of roadless areas in the two national forests would remain roadless, Rey said. Only 300,000 acres in the Tongass would be affected by the new policy, he said.
In a teleconference with reporters, Rey said the proposal was not an attempt to cede federal control of public lands to the states.
Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, an advocacy group that supports the roadless rule, said the administration was hiding behind Republican governors in states such as Idaho, Utah and Montana, who oppose the roadless rule. Many Western governors "will undoubtedly petition to exempt roadless areas in their states from protection," Clapp said.
Although Rey and other officials have said they support the principles behind the roadless rule, the administration declined to defend the rule in court. That led environmental groups to intervene in an Idaho case brought by the Boise Cascade Corp. and a coalition of Western logging and snowmobiling interests.
A divided 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the rule in December, saying the Forest Service had met all the legal requirements in developing the road ban, which covers nearly a third of the nation's forests.
Congressional supporters of the roadless rule have sponsored legislation that would give the Clinton-era rule the force of law.
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