"VENEMAN ACTS to Conserve Roadless Areas in National Forests." So read the Orwellian headline on the Agriculture Department's announcement Monday about Secretary Ann M. Veneman's move to junk a Clinton administration rule that protected nearly 60 million acres of national forest from road-building, logging and other development. But no one should buy the Bush administration's effort to give this anti-environmental action a green spin: It had pledged to uphold the roadless measure, but its proposal would instead eviscerate protections for some of the country's last unspoiled wilderness.

Adopted in the final week of the Clinton administration, the rule represents "one of the largest land preservation efforts in American history," as President Bill Clinton said at the time. It would permanently -- or, as it turns out, perhaps not -- protect one-third of national forest land, conserving critical habitat for threatened species and safeguarding the land for future generations. While this put large swaths of forest -- concentrated in 12 Western states -- off-limits, it represented a reasonable balance of use. More than half of national forest lands remain open for road-building, logging, mining and other activities.

Under the new rules, rather than being granted automatic protection, the areas would once again be subject to development. Governors would be allowed to request that their state's roadless status be maintained -- or they could petition the U.S. Forest Service to permit even more development than would have occurred without the roadless rule. In other words, rather than having national forests governed by a national standard, decisions would be influenced by local politicians subject to local pressures and special interests, specifically timber companies that enjoy a fat subsidy in the form of government-supported roads and timber sales. In defense of this plan, Ms. Veneman and others cite as an excuse the existence of lawsuits challenging the current roadless regulation, though the Bush administration has balked at defending it.

U.S. Forest Service Chief Dale N. Bosworth argues earnestly that the rule change will, in practice, have little effect and that it's a good move to enlist local support for national forests. "It's not like we have this intention or desire to go out and build roads out in these areas," he told us, noting that, before the roadless rule took effect, the Forest Service had plans for roads in only two-tenths of 1 percent of the protected acreage. Yes, but under those preexisting plans, some 34 million acres would be eligible for development.

And this administration's stewardship of national forests does nothing to allay fears that Mr. Bosworth's prediction may be wrong. It's already approved logging of old-growth forests in roadless areas of Alaska's Tongass National Forest, and the biggest timber sale in U.S. history in the Siskiyou National Forest in Oregon, including large chunks of roadless acreage. If getting rid of the roadless rule will have little practical impact, why, exactly, is the administration so keen to dump it?