The Bush administration said yesterday it plans to overturn a Clinton-era rule that made nearly 60 million acres of national forest off-limits to road-building and logging, setting aside one of the most sweeping land preservation measures in decades.
Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman proposed replacing the Clinton rule with a policy that would allow governors to petition the federal government if they wished to keep certain areas roadless. She said this approach would encourage cooperation between state and federal officials and end the litigation that has dogged Clinton's "roadless" rule since its inception.
"The prospect of endless lawsuits represents neither progress nor certainty for communities," Veneman said in a news conference yesterday in Idaho, which has more roadless land than any other state in the lower 48. "Our announcements today illustrate our commitment to working closely with the nation's governors to meet the needs of local communities, and to maintaining the undeveloped character of the most pristine areas of the national forest system."
Western states and timber companies had challenged the roadless rule in six courts after Clinton put it in place before leaving office in January 2001. The regulation prohibited development in areas spanning more than 5,000 acres, accounting for nearly a third of the national forests. Twelve Western states are home to 97 percent of all roadless areas, some of which provide drinking water to local communities as well as wildlife habitat.
The Bush administration had left the roadless prohibitions on the books but had not actively defended them in court, arguing that the rule was flawed because it did not take the needs of state and local communities into account. Later in 2001 officials adopted language that left the rule intact but allowed the Forest Service chief to allow exceptions in order to address forest fire and public safety concerns.
Officials said a ruling last year by a Wyoming federal judge invalidating the rule made a new policy necessary; the case is on appeal. An Idaho judge issued a similar injunction in 2001, which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit later overturned.
James L. Connaughton, who chairs the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said the administration is trying "to settle this once and for all on a state-by-state basis" so "we will be able to implement a very full and effective roadless conservation policy." He said the administration is more focused on issues such as fire prevention and public safety than economic development in the national forests, which have a lower level of federal protection than wilderness lands.
Environmentalists were quick to decry the proposal, which will be subject to public comment for the next 60 days. They noted that nearly 2.5 million Americans submitted comments when Clinton considered the issue, with the vast majority favoring the roadless policy.
"It's another case of the Bush administration having happy talk on the environment, but it's basically rape and pillage," said Earthjustice attorney Doug Honnold, who has defended the rule in Idaho, Wyoming and D.C. courts. "The broader debate is: Should [national forests] be devoted to development and corporate subsidies, or should they be set aside for amenity uses like wildlife protection and places where people can go to avoid the crush of civilization?"
Timber organizations hailed yesterday's announcement, saying the Clinton administration had excluded them from the process when it drafted the rule.
"There weren't maps we could comment on, it was one-size-fits-all, and they didn't thoroughly analyze the consequences," said American Forests Resource Council Vice President Chris West, whose group represents 80 forest product manufacturers and landowners.
Western Republicans praised Veneman for giving states more leverage, although the administration will make the final call. Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) suggested that energy projects should be considered in some roadless areas.
Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (R) said the Clinton rule implied "Washington, D.C., decision makers know more than those of us in Idaho what should work for us."
But New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), a member of Clinton's Cabinet, called the new plan "an abdication of federal responsibility" and a partisan move just months before the presidential election. Richardson said he will petition to protect "every single inch" of roadless areas in New Mexico.
If the new rule is enacted, it could make the ongoing litigation moot but spur a new round of suits by environmentalists.
"I don't think this is solving anything," said Jim Furnish, a 30-year veteran of the Forest Service who served as deputy chief from 1999 to 2001. "This means more controversy and more contention."
The administration has pushed forward with several projects in roadless areas since last year, when a Wyoming federal judge issued a permanent injunction against the Clinton rule. As part of a settlement of a suit by Alaska, the Forest Service recently proposed eight miles of new road construction in a roadless area in Tongass National Forest to enable timber sales. It also approved logging by helicopter in 8,000 acres of the Siskiyou National Forest in Oregon.
For the next 18 months, officials will follow the interim rule allowing exceptions for safety concerns. Once the new proposal takes effect, a governor would have to prepare a petition asking for greater or less protection than is called for under existing forest management plans, which are less stringent than Clinton's roadless rule. If the Forest Service accepts the petition, it would negotiate a detailed plan with the state.