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Bush offers new roadless rules
Gov. Ted Kulongoski criticizes the move to allow states to petition for roadless areas, which would require approval
Tuesday, July 13, 2004
The Bush administration Monday closed the book on broad protections for 58.5 million acres of roadless national forests, leaving the land open to logging and other development unless state governors recommend otherwise.
The move affects about 2 million acres in Oregon -- roughly twice the area of the Mount Hood National Forest east of Portland -- and reverses strong safeguards announced by the Clinton administration in its final days.
It would let state governors take "the first step" in deciding whether roadless acres on federal forests still merit the permanent protection the Clinton rules gave them, said Mark Rey, undersecretary of agriculture, who oversees national forests. That is an unusual move in federal lands policy, which commonly emerges from federal agencies.
Governors could seek protection for some, all or no roadless forests in their states, and could outline what activities -- such as logging or mining -- should be allowed. If a state does not petition for roadless protection within 18 months after the new rules, however, decisions about land management revert to managers of the individual federal forests.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman announced the new policy at a news conference Monday in Boise with Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, who filed an early lawsuit challenging the Clinton rules.
He said Idaho had been "completely shut out" of the opportunity for input and could not obtain maps of the lands affected.
Bush administration officials said their new approach slices through a web of nearly 10 lawsuits entangling the Clinton safeguards while giving Westerners more influence in land decisions affecting them. Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, other Democrats and environmental activists said it reopens debate over roadless lands that should remain off-limits.
"The governor's disappointed the administration has taken this path," Kulongoski spokeswoman Mary Ellen Glynn said Monday. "He feels it doesn't offer protection to some of the most pristine areas of Oregon and the West."
Kulongoski is reviewing the state's options to contest the Bush move, which may include legal action, she said. State officials do not yet know if or how they would petition for protection of roadless forests in Oregon, she said.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, said he would support environmental groups if they go to court to block the move.
"It's an abdication of federal responsibility in the guise of state consultation," Richardson said.
Biscuit salvage unaffected
While states decide how to proceed, new roads and logging would be restricted in roadless forests without explicit approval from U.S. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth.
But that does not affect planned logging on roadless lands scorched by the 2002 Biscuit fire in Southern Oregon. The logging was approved last week, just ahead of the new directive and marks the largest sale of timber on lands once placed off-limits by the Clinton initiative.
Although Kulongoski opposes logging in roadless forests, his position has no bearing because it has already been approved, said Forest Service spokesman Joe Walsh.
Roadless lands, although often remote and undisturbed, lack the permanent federal protection afforded wilderness areas. The Clinton administration tried to change that, collecting 1.6 million public comments on proposed protections, finally setting aside 58.5 million roadless acres in early 2001, with minor exceptions.
But a series of lawsuits challenged the new rules, and they were thrown out last summer by a federal court in Wyoming. Environmental groups are appealing the decision, but Bush administration officials said they wanted a new mechanism that would stand up in court.
The new regulations announced Monday will be open to public comment for about two months. They do not specify a process for states to follow. It says petitions submitted to the federal government must address certain issues, such as how the suggested protections would affect fish and wildlife or address fire hazards.
No threshold for protections
But it does not list any threshold for protections.
Veneman proposed assembling a national panel of experts to help assess state petitions when they come in.
Rey said he expects most Western states, which contain almost all the nation's roadless acreage, to submit petitions.
"I think we're going to see governors wanting to be involved, wanting to be included," he said.
The secretary of agriculture would decide whether to accept state petitions. Once a petition is accepted, the federal government would begin a process to enact its recommendations, which would go through further public comment.
Rey predicted the process would probably lead to protection of most of the same lands as the Clinton rule. But he said the outcome will face less legal contention because it will involve more input at the state level.
Environmental activists said the reworking of the rule will only amplify conflict by reopening a process where the public already expressed its will. Susan Ash of the Audubon Society of Portland said Oregonians submitted more comments on the Clinton roadless protections than residents of almost any state, and 90 percent supported them.
"Now they're saying you have to ask that the roadless areas in your state be protected," she said. "It doesn't even make it clear that the request would be granted. It's basically saying, 'If you want to protect roadless areas in your state, petition us and we'll consider it.' "
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