U.S. to Open Remote Forests To Logging

Associated Press
Friday, May 6, 2005

The Bush administration, in one of its biggest environmental decisions, moved yesterday to open nearly one-third of all remote national forest lands to road building, logging 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 President Bill Clinton eight days before he left office in January 2001.

In Virginia, 394,000 acres are affected in the Jefferson and George Washington national forests.

Under existing local forest management plans, about 34.3 million acres of these pristine woodlands nationally could be opened to road construction. That would be the first step in allowing logging, mining and other industry and wider recreational uses. 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 to challenge either the old plans to stop development, or to call for new plans to allow it.

Environmentalists said the new rule would let the administration rewrite the forest management plans to lift restrictions against development on most of the forest land.

"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."

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said in announcing the rule that his agency "is committed to working closely with the nation's governors to meet the needs of our local communities while protecting and restoring the health and natural beauty of our national forests."

The Agriculture Department, which includes the Forest Service, said governors can base their petitions on requests to protect public health and safety; reduce wildfire risks to communities; conserve wildlife habitat; maintain dams, utilities or other infrastructure; or ensure that citizens have access to private property.

The Forest Service, which will review and have final say over the petitions, calls the new process voluntary and is setting up a national advisory committee on the rule. "If a governor does not want to propose changes . . . then no petition need be submitted," the agency says in briefing documents.

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