Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is asking the federal government to prohibit roads on 4.4 million acres of national forest land in California, with limited exceptions for thinning trees to reduce fire danger.
The goal is to protect areas of the forests that currently are not accessible by roads, Resources Secretary Mike Chrisman said Tuesday.
Schwarzenegger is acting under a regulation adopted last year by the Bush administration. That regulation replaced a Clinton-era rule prohibiting road-building on nearly a third of national forest land.
Clinton passed the road-building ban eight days before he left office in January 2001. The Bush administration rule opened 58.5 million acres of the previously protected land to potential road building, unless governors petitioned the federal government to preserve the areas.
The agriculture secretary has the final say, however, leading environmentalists to fear that the process will open remote parts of national forests to logging, mining and grazing. Areas specifically designated as wilderness are still protected.
Four states — New Mexico, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia — have filed petitions like the one California was filing Wednesday to protect their forests. An advisory committee set up under the U.S. Department of Agriculture has recommended approving three of those petitions and is considering New Mexico's.
That should allay fears that large tracts of national forest land will be opened to industry, Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey said.
Governors in Minnesota, New Hampshire, Utah and Wyoming have opted against seeking specific roadless rules for their states, however. States face a Nov. 14 deadline to submit petitions before new roadless-area regulations take effect in 2007.
There were no plans to build roads in any of the designated areas in California, which comprise 21 percent of the state's national forest land, said Rey and U.S. Forest Service spokesman Matt Mathes.
"I guess what this will do is solidify it in rule-making," Rey said. He added that future governors "could ask us to go back and reconsider."
Roadless areas previously had been considered too remote or rugged for logging. They were inventoried under the Clinton administration as part of a survey of potential wilderness areas.
Environmentalists said the Bush administration's revising of the previous rules is intended to open national forests to industrial uses. The timber industry is increasingly interested in the areas as one of the few remaining sources of old-growth trees, which produce more valuable lumber.
Schwarzenegger supports the Bush administration's roadless regulation because it allows for states' participation and for tailoring regulations to individual states, Chrisman said.
"We want to make it California-specific," he said.
Maintaining areas without roads is important to protect wildlife, watersheds and recreational opportunities, he said.
Schwarzenegger's petition seeks limited exceptions for roads leading to mining claims and American Indian ceremonial sites, as well as to allow the cutting of brush and smaller fire-prone trees near mountain towns.
California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, meanwhile, is suing in federal court to overturn the Bush roadless regulation. He is joined by the governors of Washington and Oregon and attorneys general in New Mexico, Maine and Montana.
"There is no guarantee that the Bush administration is going to grant this petition," Lockyer spokeswoman Teresa Schilling said of the Schwarzenegger request. "They could just accept it or reject it without any reason. So we're going to continue to put the onus back on the Forest Service to protect the forest."
Environmental groups praised Schwarzenegger's decision, which he plans to formally announce at a news conference in Sacramento.
"We're doing handsprings, we like it so much," said Sam Davidson, California field director for the conservation group Trout Unlimited.
Remote forest land in California is home to some of the state's rarest fish, Davidson said, including the Paiute cutthroat trout and the official state fish, the golden trout.
In a related move Tuesday, the Schwarzenegger administration filed appeals with the Forest Service to the management plans for four national forests in Southern California.
The plans would leave large areas of roadless land unprotected in the Angeles, Cleveland, Los Padres and San Bernardino national forests, the administration said in the appeals.