The Bush administration has decided to let stand a Clinton administration regulation protecting 60 million acres of national forest from logging and road construction, but with the intention of reopening the rule-making process for possible significant changes in the future.
The regulation was one of the most far-reaching of President Bill Clinton's environmental initiatives and would protect more than a quarter of federal forests -- including large tracts of Alaska's Tongass National Forest -- from most commercial logging, new road construction and mining.
Under the new approach to be announced today by officials of the Agriculture and Justice departments, the government would grant logging, oil and gas exploration interests and local officials and residents far more say in revising the rules governing individual national forests.
By allowing the rule to go forward while promising logging interests and western lawmakers the opportunity for long-term relief, the administration will for now avoid another confrontation with environmental groups and congressional Democrats over a major environmental issue. Later on, however, the administration could do much to reverse or substantially alter what Clinton has done.
Instead of imposing a blanket rule on all 60 million acres, the administration's approach would allow the U.S. Forest Service to reconsider on a park-by-park basis what rules are best for protecting roadless areas in a way that would give more weight to the concerns of local businesses, residents and government officials. State officials of Alaska, Colorado, Idaho and Utah as well as the Boise Cascade timber company have complained in court that their objections to the Clinton plan were ignored.
An administration official said yesterday that the aim is "reaching out and listening to all the voices of people that were not listened to in the process -- local people, county commissioners, state governments."
However, the Clinton-era protections for roadless areas would remain in effect until each forest is analyzed, according to sources.
Bush has come under fire for his earlier decisions to renege on a campaign pledge to crack down on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, his disavowal of the 1997 Kyoto global warming treaty, and his decisions to set aside tough new standards for arsenic in drinking water and other Clinton-era regulations.
This week, 22 moderate House Republicans joined with the Democrats in urging Bush to support the new rule. A spokesman for Rep. James V. Hansen (R-Utah), chairman of the House Committee on Resources, said that the administration had signaled its intentions of working out a compromise with environmentalists and that "this gives western governments the input they're looking for and still protects our pristine roadless areas."
The vast majority of roadless federal forests are in the West, including parts of Idaho's Bitterroot range and Alaska's Tongass, viewed by environmentalists as North America's rain forest. Smaller sections are scattered across the country from Florida's Apalachicola National Forest and Virginia's George Washington National Forest to New Hampshire's White Mountains.
The rule, announced Jan. 5, was the culmination of a three-year process that included public comments by 1.6 million Americans, most of which were positive. The rule was supposed to take effect in March, but the Bush administration delayed implementation until today while it conducted a review.
The rule's fate has been complicated by the lawsuit brought by the timber industry and western state officials in Boise, Idaho. U.S. District Judge Edward J. Lodge, who is hearing the case, issued an order April 5 postponing until today a decision on whether to grant an injunction to block the Clinton rule from taking effect.
Lodge, who has denounced as "grossly inadequate" the process used by the Clinton administration in preparing the rule, gave the Justice Department until today to file a brief setting out the administration's views on the legality of the logging ban. Regardless of what the government says in its brief, the logging ban likely will remain tied up in court for months if not years to come.
Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, said the administration's decision to keep the ban in place while a new review is done will put forests in the West at risk for insect damage, disease and fire because the roadless areas will be inaccessible.
Doug Honnold of the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund described the administration's decision as "basically an effort to dress up an environmentally destructive policy in a fashion that would lead innocent bystanders to believe that they're protecting the environment, when the on-the-ground effects are to trash the environment."
However, Mark Van Putten, president of the National Wildlife Federation, hailed the administration's action for responding to "the enormous outcry from Americans who want full protection for our nation's wildlife heritage in our last remaining wild forests."
"A decision to protect our national forests shows the administration's willingness to embrace common sense solutions which should be applied to other conservation challenges on the administration's agenda," he added.