- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 10, 2003

The Bush administration upheld yesterday sweeping environmental restrictions on public lands imposed by the Clinton administration, but with the caveat that governors can opt out under certain conditions.

The Roadless Area Conservation Rule will restrict resources development, primarily logging, and some recreation through nearly 60 million of acres of national forests by banning new road construction.

“We are going to leave the Clinton rule in place. That is the law of the land,” said Mark Rey, agriculture undersecretary of natural resources and the environment.

“But we are going to work in good faith with the governors of states to see where relief might be appropriate,” he said.

Within weeks of taking office, the Bush administration considered suspending the last-minute ban that covers one-third of the nation’s forests.

The proposal was heralded as Mr. Clinton’s environmental legacy when it was proposed in 2000.

The Bush administration’s adaptation was criticized by environmentalists, who say the exemptions will sidestep the true intentions of the regulations: to stop logging.

“The administration’s clear objective here is to mask its intention to log and drill in roadless areas of our national forests until after the 2004 election,” said Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust.

“In the meantime, the Bush administration plans to hide behind Republican governors of Western states like Idaho and Colorado, who have consistently been champions of the timber industry, and who will undoubtedly petition to exempt roadless areas in their states from protection,” Mr. Clapp said.

Nine lawsuits involving seven states have been filed challenging the roadless rule during the past two years. That includes one filed by Alaska. The Justice Department said the Alaska lawsuit was settled with an agreement that timber harvests will be prohibited on more than 95 percent of national forests and that protections will continue on nearly 16 million acres. Alaska’s area is 570,000 square miles, or 365 million acres.

“I appreciate there will be a lot of unhappiness with this proposition. … Ninety-five percent of the loaf is not satisfying to those who want more,” Mr. Rey said.

Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman said the administration will move forward with a balanced approach that protects the environment and is responsive to the needs of rural communities.

“We are committed to maintaining the character of designated, authentic roadless areas,” she said.

Governors may ask for exemptions for “exceptional circumstances,” such as public health or to reduce wildfire risks to communities and wildlife.

The Forest Service reported last year that 22 million acres of proposed roadless forests were at moderate to high risk of catching fire.

Governors may also ask for exemptions to protect dams or access to private property, or to make technical corrections to remove roaded areas that already exist.

“This is a real opportunity to engage states as partners in the decision-making, where improvements to the rule could be made on a limited basis,” Mr. Rey said.

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