New rule opens national forest areas to road building
05:41 PM PDT on Thursday, May 5, 2005
WASHINGTON - The Bush administration, in one of its biggest decisions on environmental issues, moved Thursday to open up nearly a third of all remote national forest lands to road building, timbering and other commercial ventures.
The 58.5 million acres involved, mainly in Alaska and in western states, had been put off limits to development by former President Clinton, eight days before he left office in January 2001.
Under existing local forest management plans, some 34.3 million acres of these pristine woodlands could be opened to road construction. That would be the first step in allowing logging, mining and other industry and wider recreational uses of the land.
Under proposed rules, new management plans have to be written for the other 24.2 million acres before road building can commence.
Governors have 18 months to submit petitions to the U.S. Forest Service, challenging either the old plan to stop development, or calling for new plans to allow it.
The administration planned to announce the new "roadless" rule later Thursday.
The Forest Service, which will review and have final say over the petitions, calls the new process voluntary. "If a governor does not want to propose changes ... then no petition need be submitted," the agency says in briefing documents obtained by The Associated Press.
Environmentalists say the new rule also would let the administration rewrite the forest management plans to lift restrictions against development on most of that forest land.
Statement from Wash. Gov. Christine Gregoire
"We value our national forest roadless areas in Washington state. They are important habitat for endangered fish and wildlife, help provide clean water and opportunities for recreation and solitude, and contribute to the wonderful natural environment we enjoy in the Pacific Northwest. We hope to have most, if not all, of our national forest roadless areas in Washington protected."
"Yesterday, nearly 60 million acres of national forests were protected and today as a result of deliberate action by the administration they are not," said Robert Vandermark, director of the Heritage Forests Campaign, run by a coalition of environment groups. "The Bush administration plan is a 'leave no tree behind' policy that paves the way for increased logging, drilling and mining in some of our last wild areas."
The Clinton-era rule has been much debated in federal court.
A federal court in Idaho had issued a preliminary injunction against the roadless rule in 2001, but the San Francisco-based U.S.
Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit overturned the injunction based on an appeal by environmental groups.
Then in 2003, a federal court in Wyoming overturned the rule.
Many of those same groups appeals to the Denver-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, which heard arguments Wednesday.
The Forest Service believes its new rule "helps us to move forward with a policy that is not clouded by legal uncertainty, as was the case with the 2001 rule," says a current agency document entitled "National Key Messages & Talking Points."
Jim Angell, an attorney with Earthjustice law firm in Denver, who argued the case, called that just an excuse for pushing through a new rule that represents "a huge step back for the protection of our most pristine lands."
"Really, this is an effort to rush this rule through before the 10th Circuit can reverse that Wyoming judge, just like the 9th Circuit did before," he said. "It's incredibly cynical of them to use that judge's ruling as an excuse."
Here's the Forest Service breakdown on areas subject to the new roadless rule:
Alabama, 13,000 acres.
TOTAL: 58,518,000 acres.