The Bush administration Wednesday approved requests from three Eastern governors to bar commercial logging in remote sections of national forests in their states.
The petitions from Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, covering a total of 555,000 acres, were the first submitted to the administration since it eased logging restrictions on what are known as roadless tracts.
Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey said from Washington, D.C., that he hoped the acceptance would show governors around the country, including four in the West who have sued to block such logging, that the administration is willing to work with them.
“We’ve always been green,” Rey said. “We just haven’t gotten credit for it.”
The petitions still must go through a public review that could take years before the protections are in place.
The three governors asked to return roadless areas in their states to the protections that existed under 2001 rules initiated by the Clinton administration.
“The approval of our request to keep these areas roadless — along with our ongoing efforts to protect other ecologically significant land in the state — is an important step toward preserving the way we look and feel as a state and preserve our competitive advantage with respect to our quality of life,” South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford said in a statement.
Mike Anderson of the Wilderness Society said there is little pressure in those three states to log in national forests, making the decision easy for the Bush administration.
In Oregon, a federal judge on Wednesday denied a motion by conservation groups to block logging in a burned-over, roadless area in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest while he hears their lawsuit.
But the judge gave the plaintiffs time to appeal. He told the Forest Service, which auctioned the timber this month for $300,000, not to give permission to the buyer to start logging before Tuesday.
The Oregon sale was the first since the Bush administration eased the Clinton-era restrictions. Environmentalists warned that the sale could open the door to logging on nearly 60 million acres of national forest.
Rey said the Oregon sale was intended to speed recovery of the forest after a 2002 fire. He added that the logs would be removed with helicopters, and no roads would be built.
Pressure has been growing from the timber industry to open roadless areas to logging, because they represent the last big source of untouched old-growth timber in the country, particularly in the West. Oregon, California, Washington, and New Mexico have joined in a lawsuit to stop roadless logging.