WASHINGTON — Following through on a pledge to change Clinton-era protections on 58.5 million acres of forest, the Bush administration on Thursday announced it will let governors petition for more or fewer restrictions on logging, mining and other development there.
The action, affecting forests mainly in the West, impacts the "roadless rule" that President Clinton had put in place little more than a week before leaving office in January 2001. Clinton’s regulation blocked road construction as a way to prevent logging, mining and other industry activities in the backcountry.
Under existing local forest management plans, some 34.3 million acres could be opened to road construction. That would be the first step in allowing logging, mining and other industry and wider recreational uses of the land.
Under proposed rules, 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, challenging either the old plan to stop development, or calling for new plans to allow it.
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.
Criticism from activists
Environmentalists were quick to condemn the Bush administration action, calling it the “Leave No Tree Behind” or the "treeless" rule.
""Today the Bush administration completely ignored the will of the American people by axing our country’s most popular forest conservation measure," Niel Lawrence, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.
The Forest Service, which will review and have final say over the petitions, calls the new process voluntary. “If a governor does not want to propose changes ... then no petition need be submitted,” the agency says in documents obtained before the announcement by The Associated Press.
Lawrence countered that "administration officials may say that they have amended, not repealed, the roadless rule. However, the treeless rule is about replacing real protections with a meaningless process."
Long legal road
The Clinton-era rule has been much debated in federal court.
A federal court in Idaho had issued a preliminary injunction against the roadless rule in 2001, but the San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit overturned the injunction based on an appeal by environmental groups.
Then in 2003, a federal court in Wyoming overturned the rule. Many of those same groups appeals to the Denver-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, which heard arguments Wednesday.
The Forest Service believes its new rule “helps us to move forward with a policy that is not clouded by legal uncertainty, as was the case with the 2001 rule,” says a current agency document entitled “National Key Messages & Talking Points.”
Jim Angell, an attorney with Earthjustice law firm in Denver, who argued the case, called that just an excuse for pushing through a new rule that represents “a huge step back for the protection of our most pristine lands.”
“Really, this is an effort to rush this rule through before the 10th Circuit can reverse that Wyoming judge, just like the 9th Circuit did before,” he said. “It’s incredibly cynical of them to use that judge’s ruling as an excuse.”
The 58.5 million acres are nearly a third of the 191 million acres managed by the Forest Service across the country.
Roadless areas in national forests stretch among 38 states and Puerto Rico. But 97 percent, or 56.6 million acres, are found in 12 states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.