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Clash intensifies over access to forest lands

A new Bush administration proposal would require Western governors to petition to stop logging in national forests.

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For decades, politicians, environmentalists, and commercial interests have wrangled over what to do with the millions of acres of national forest land that remains pristine. Leave it that way? Bulldoze in roads to provide access for loggers, miners, and energy developers?

This week, the Bush administration signaled its intent to allow more roads to be built for resource extraction and other commercial development in national forest roadless areas. The decision overturns a Clinton-era rule preventing road-building on such federally managed land.

While these places may be pristine habitat for grizzly bears, mountain lions, and the occasional backpacker or hunter, they are not wilderness. Wilderness - which is strictly off-limits to any roads, development, or motor vehicles - is created by acts of Congress. For this reason, national forest roadless areas may have the potential to be designated as wilderness but they are much more open to the political inclinations of a particular administration or congressional majority.

The process of managing roadless parts of national forests began during the Carter administration with a complex inventory of such lands. While 39 states have some roadless national forest areas, 97 percent of the total - 57 million acres - is concentrated in 12 western states.

During the last two years of the Clinton administration, federal agencies sought public input. After 600 public meetings and more than 2 million comments overwhelmingly favoring protection from development, the White House, in the last month before President Bush took over, issued a new regulation stating that those lands should remain free of logging, mining, and drilling.

The Bush administration has wanted to open up some of those lands. And it's been urged in that direction by a blizzard of lawsuits - nine separate lawsuits in seven states involving a dozen federal judges - from industries, as well as some Western governors, including Dirk Kempthorne (R) of Idaho, who want more control of and access to national forests. Two federal courts have blocked the Clinton rule, but one of those was overturned by a US Court of Appeals.

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