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The Forests' Future

The Clinton administration recently announced an 18-month moratorium on road building in more than 30 million acres of national forest. This reverses decades of US Forest Service efforts to make public land ever more accessible to the timber industry. Some 373,000 miles of logging road already lace the national forests.

The moratorium draws a line. It should herald an era in which the aesthetic and recreational value of unspoiled land eclipses its commercial value to industry. From a purely economic perspective, the former value now outweighs the latter.

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The Forest Service notes that 74 percent of the jobs that rely on the use of its lands are in recreation. Logging accounts for only 3 percent of such jobs.

Such statistics aren't likely, however, to impress logging interests and their many supporters in Congress. That's why the promise implied by the road-building moratorium is tentative. A firm reversal of the policy of ripping access roads through forests to accommodate loggers faces fierce resistance.

Much of that resistance will take the form of impassioned pleas to protect a threatened way of life in Western logging towns. Those pleas can't be pushed easily aside. Without question, some people will have to find new livelihoods. But that adjustment is part of a changing economic landscape throughout the country.

And the prospect is good that a society moving toward work ever more dominated by information technology and its "virtual" realities will increasingly want to preserve what remains of untrammeled wilderness, where nature's actual wonders can thrive.

A new era of conservation won't arrive all at once, however. A look at the Forest Service's moratorium confirms that. It excludes vast tracts of now roadless land in the Pacific Northwest and in Alaska's Tongass National Forest. The service argues that these areas are already under management plans that balance industry needs and ecological concerns. Perhaps, but the exclusion was undoubtedly also a way of postponing bruising political fights with Congress.

The 30 million acres now included in the moratorium signals change, nonetheless. During the year and a half halt in road-building, a new policy on access to the forests will be drawn up - confirming, we hope, a clear break with the past. The Forest Service is right to start this campaign. Now may it persist.

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