- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 7, 2000

Walking through the forest is harmful to the environment, according to a proposed rule by the Forest Service that critics say would restrict public access through the nation's forests.

"Unwanted or nonnative plant species can be transported on vehicles and clothing by users of [forest] roads, ultimately displacing native species," said the proposal printed Friday in the Federal Register.

The proposed regulation would establish guidelines for how the agency manages its transportation system and sets maintenance and new road-building priorities. However critics say the broad language could halt all future road building.

"These people want to return the forest to the conditions existing before Europeans landed on the continent," said Sen. Frank H. Murkowski, Alaska Republican and chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The agency's proposal said that traveling through the forests harms the ground and the animals living there, so some roads should be closed and greater balance given between public access and environmental concerns when deciding if a new road should be built.

"Roads allow people to travel into previously difficult or impossible to access areas, resulting in indirect impacts such as ground and habitat disturbance, increased pressure on wildlife species, increased litter, sanitation needs and vandalism, and increased frequency of human-caused fires," the proposal said.

Sen. Larry E. Craig, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee on forests and public land management, said his concern was that an injection of new-age thinking in forest management would result in ice-age management.

"I, for one, am reluctant to spend my next visit to a national forest sleeping in a cave, merely to assure that we are replicating pre-settlement conditions," the Idaho Republican said in a written statement.

If the proposal becomes a regulation, it would make it nearly impossible to build new roads to access the forests, critics said.

"Even if it is implemented with the rule of reason, the language of the rule is so amorphous that anyone who wants to stop a road from being built has more than enough ammunition to do it," said Mark Rey, a senior staffer for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

"In the hands of litigators, these regulations could be the road to ruin for our national forests," Mr. Rey said.

According to the Forest Service, recreation use has climbed to an all-time high of 13.6 million vehicles per day on forest roads.

The proposal would "shift the emphasis from transportation development to managing environmentally sound access."

"It's not surprising they look at the invention of the wheel as the greatest threat to the national forests," Mr. Murkowski said.

"They're doing everything possible to save the forests, except take a science class," Mr. Murkowski said.

Critics of the Forest Service say the agency is putting forth several regulations regarding roads and forest use that will lead to the creation of de facto wilderness designations.

The controversial proposal would severely restrict recreational use such as mountain biking, snowmobiling, skiing, all-terrain vehicles and rock climbing.

Gaining access to the forest to fight forest fires is also a concern.

"Now the Clinton administration wants to regulate walking and wearing clothing," said Rob Gordon, executive director of the Wilderness Institute.

Mr. Craig said the proposals and ongoing public process is like "inviting everyone in a crowded movie theater to help them review a movie after they have yelled fire."

"The Clinton administration has already managed to antagonize and convince many, if not the majority, of public land users in the rural West that all they are about is throwing the people off the public lands," Mr. Craig said.

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