By DOUGLAS JEHL (NYT) 1248 words
Road Ban Set For One-Third Of U.S. Forests
Published: January 5, 2001
In the biggest land conservation act in decades, President Clinton will approve an order on Friday putting nearly a third of the national forest land permanently off limits to road building and logging.
The move, covering more than 58 million acres in 39 states, is to be cast by the White House as a capstone in the president's efforts to protect public lands from development. It would effectively prohibit not only commercial logging but also oil and gas development across an area larger than the nation's current national parks. And while not specifically banned, off-road vehicle activity would probably be severely limited in the roadless areas because of their inaccessibility.
The president's order, a strengthened version of an October 1999 administration proposal, is likely to set off furious challenges from Western states and Republican lawmakers who have called the plan hasty and irresponsible.
Among those who plan to head almost immediately to federal court to try to block the sweeping effort is the governor of Idaho, who with other Westerners has denounced the action as an unwise intrusion into land-use decisions better made at a local level.
In the presidential campaign, President-elect George W. Bush aligned himself with the plan's critics, on the ground that it paid too little heed to Western concerns about the impact on the local timber industries and other enterprises.
But Mr. Bush has not said whether he will seek to overturn the action, a step that could be accomplished only through cumbersome new rule-making proceedings or action by Congress.
A Bush spokeswoman, Juleanna Glover Weiss, said tonight, ''We will be taking a look at all of President Clinton's executive orders and his rule-making history after Jan. 20, and that is all I'm going to say.''
Mr. Clinton is expected to portray the forest-protection plan as a bold answer to a pressing national need ''to protect all this before it's too late.''
Not since the presidency of Jimmy Carter, when much of Alaska was designated as wilderness area, has so much federal land been set aside for additional safeguards. Environmentalists hailed the order as rivaling only the steps taken by President Theodore Roosevelt in laying the foundation for today's national forest system.
''This is a great moment in history, and it is something for which our children will express gratitude,'' said Ken Rait, who as director of the Heritage Forests Campaign was a leader among those lobbying the administration for the move.
In putting the new protections in place, Mr. Clinton chose to bypass Congress, because of stiff opposition there, and to rely instead on administrative powers that allow considerable latitude in drafting federal rules. But his opponents, led by Gov. Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho, said they intended to argue in their legal challenge that the process was both flawed and politically driven and that it should be reversed.
''Idaho will sue,'' Governor Kempthorne said in a telephone interview tonight. He called the action an example of ''absolutely flawed public policy that has stiffed the states.''
A top aide to Senator Larry Craig, Republican of Idaho, said tonight that Congressional Republicans had not decided whether to try to overturn the new rule, but he predicted that the legal fight would succeed.
''This is the Clinton administration trying to beat the clock,'' the aide said, ''and its credibility is going to suffer when it comes to judicial review.''
A previous effort to grant permanent protection to roadless areas in the national forests was blocked by court order, during the Carter administration, more than 20 years ago, on the ground that the rule-making process did not meet the standards of federal law. But a senior administration official who outlined Mr. Clinton's plan in a telephone interview today said he was confident that the Clinton administration's much more painstaking effort would withstand any legal or legislative challenge.
''This is very much in the national interest, and the public overwhelmingly supports it,'' the official said, noting that the vast majority of the more than 1.5 million people who expressed their views to the administration during a public comment period last spring favored the plan to increase forest protection.
With its unveiling in the final three months of Mr. Clinton's presidency, the road ban joins a lengthening list of last-minute White House rule-making in the environmental arena that has been shaped to withstand any challenge by Mr. Bush. But proponents of the plan said they remained concerned that even if the new president and Congress did not mount a head-on challenge, they might still undermine the rules by choosing not to enforce them.
''This is truly a landmark,'' said Nathaniel Lawrence, a senior lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council. ''But I think the other shoe has yet to drop in terms of whether Congress heeds the popularity of this, and also whether the incoming Bush administration tries to gut it through lax administration and creative implementation.''
Among the loudest opponents of the plan have been representatives of the timber and energy industries, who argue that it would deny them access to resources that the nation might otherwise need to import. At a time when natural gas shortages have sent prices soaring, industry has argued that large gas reservoirs might lie beneath roadless area and that it would be particularly unwise to do anything that might limit future supplies. But administration officials said their own studies found that no more than 2 percent of the nation's untapped natural gas reserves were in those national forest areas that would be off limits to roads.
The final plan approved by Mr. Clinton will be put into law in the form of a final rule to be signed by Dan Glickman, who as agriculture secretary oversees the national forests. The setting for the announcement will be the National Arboretum in Washington, and those who will attend include Mike Dombeck, who as the Forest Service chief was among the main architects of the plan.
The forest-protection plan covers all of the remaining national forest land that has not already either been developed or granted permanent protection as a wilderness area.
The move goes well beyond a draft blueprint laid out by the administration last spring, which would have covered about 40 million acres of forest land, and it is even more restrictive than a final Forest Service plan released in November. The Tongass National Forest in Alaska, the nation's largest and one that in some versions would have been exempted from the roadbuilding ban, is included in the final plan, although timber sales already concluded will be honored.
In general, under the plan, the only logging permitted in the roadless areas would be for habitat restoration and fire prevention. Even then, a senior administration official said, the new rules make clear that only small trees -- the ones most prone to fire and least valuable -- could be cut.
''We want to make sure that this doesn't become a loophole for future logging,'' the official said.
Photo: One-third of the national forest land will be put off limits to road building and logging by an order to be signed today by President Clinton. Among the affected areas is the Salmon-Challis National Forest, above, in Idaho. (Charles Pezeshki)(pg. A12)