updated 6/1/2006 12:21:57 PM ET 2006-06-01T16:21:57

New Mexico has become the fourth state — and the first Western state — to petition the Bush administration for roadless area protection under a new rule established last year.

Gov. Bill Richardson is asking the federal government to protect all 1.6 million acres of roadless national forest in the state — and to throw in 100,000 acres of the Valle Vidal region of northern New Mexico as well.

Adding the Valle Vidal to the protected acreage would create "another stumbling block" to proposed drilling on the renowned elk and trout habitat, he said Wednesday. His petition was applauded by environmental groups.

Just before he left office in January 2001, President Clinton issued a rule banning development and road building on almost one-third of the nation's 192 million acres of national forest land.

The Bush administration repealed the rule, replacing it with a process under which governors can ask the U.S. Forest Service to protect roadless areas. Critics say that puts wild areas at risk for logging, mining and drilling, unless governors act and the Forest Service agrees.

New Mexico, Washington, Oregon and California also are challenging the Bush administration's repeal of the Clinton rule in court. The lawsuit is pending.

Richardson, a Democrat who was Clinton's energy secretary, called the Bush administration "very hostile" and said he was "a little bit agitated about their environmental policy."

Oil and gas development in the Valle Vidal, a unit of the Carson National Forest, "would be disastrous," according to Richardson. The petition process provides an opportunity to add the area to the roadless inventory and protect it, he said.

Houston-based El Paso Corp. has asked the Forest Service to open almost 40 percent of the Valle Vidal for leases, in order to tap into coal-bed methane reserves. A final decision isn't expected until 2008.

If the Department of Agriculture rejects the state's petition, the future of roadless areas would be left to local forest management plans, said Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust. That could leave 430,000 of New Mexico's 1.6 million acres open to road building, he said.

Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina have filed petitions to protect all roadless areas in those states.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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