Road Building to Be Allowed on National Forest 'Roadless' Areas
WASHINGTON The last 58.5 million acres of untouched national forests, which President Clinton had set aside for protection, were opened to possible logging, mining and other commercial uses by the Bush administration on Thursday.
New rules from the U.S. Forest Service cover some of the most pristine federal land in 38 states and Puerto Rico. Ninety-seven percent of it is in 12 states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
Governors can submit petitions within 18 months to stop road building on some of the 34.3 million acres where it would now be permitted or request that new forest management plans be written to allow the construction on some of the other 24.2 million acres.
Many officials made it clear much of the land will remain untouched.
"We have no plans to build roads in the roadless areas of the national forests in California. ... Areas are roadless here for a reason," said Matt Mathes, a regional spokesman for the Forest Service in the state.
Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said his agency, which includes the Forest Service, will work closely with governors "to meet the needs of our local communities while protecting and restoring the health and natural beauty of our national forests."
Democrats questioned why governors were getting so much power over land use.
"Trees, wildlife and fish don't respect state boundaries, and I don't think decisions about management of roadless areas -- or other parts of the national forests -- should be based on those lines, either," said Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo.
Eight days before leaving office in 2001, Clinton acted to take decisions about roadless forest land away from local federal managers. Environmentalists said the managers often were too close to logging companies and other developers.
"Any short-term economic gain that would result from turning over these areas to corporate special interests is significantly outweighed by the economic benefit of keeping them intact," said Steve Smith, The Wilderness Society's assistant regional director for Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico.
The Forest Service will have final say over the governors' petitions. But the agency is creating an advisory committee to help put the rule in place.
The agency said petitions from the states could be based on requests to protect public health and safety; reduce wildfire risks; conserve wildlife habitat; maintain dams, utilities or other public works; or ensure that people have road access to their private property.
With the federal courts deeply involved since Clinton's action, the fate of the regulations is in doubt. For example, on Wednesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit heard arguments from environmental groups that are appealing a Wyoming judge's ruling overturning Clinton's move.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld Clinton's rule. Many of the same issues apply in both cases.
Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who oversees forest policy, said the new rule would cut away the legal uncertainty by getting states on the side of the federal government.
He emphasized that the rule probably would not lead to a big spurt of road building. "We've only been constructing a few miles of road each year," he said.
Jim Angell, a lawyer with the Earthjustice law firm, said plaintiffs already are lining up to challenge the changes announced Thursday.
Source: Associated Press