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Clinton's Tree Hugging

Let's be upfront about this. The ends are good. Protecting the national forests, particularly those dwindling parcels still home to majestic old-growth trees, is an admirable end. The only question concerns the means.

President Clinton, just before his tenure runs out, has issued federal rules that put 58 million acres of national forestland, about a third of the total, off-limits to new road-building and logging.

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And his chief of the US Forest Service, Mike Dombeck, set a policy that reduces by some 20 percent the amount of federal timber available for auction to private loggers. His action would preserve remaining old-growth plots, estimated at about 3 percent of the nation's forests.

These moves are a direct challenge to the incoming Bush administration, which prefers that Congress and Western states be given a democratic opportunity to shape such rules.

They may be part of President Clinton's grab at some sort of "legacy" as an ardent environmentalist. But such far-reaching policymaking that's done in such a heavy-handed and one-sided way is not a tribute to an environmentalism that honors the democratic process. Impatience with a Congress that's sometimes ruled by special interests does not justify doing an administrative end run.

It's right to reverse decades of policy that often managed national forests for the sake of loggers and other private interests. The existing 380,000 miles of publicly built access roads in the forests, a substantial subsidy for lumber companies, testify to the skewed thrust of the old policies.

The logging-road ban, which had been in the works for months in a public comment process, now carries the force of federal law. Changing it to reflect the will of Congress or the new president will be difficult. Mr. Dombeck's policy on old-growth forests doesn't have the same legal weight. But it could shape Forest Service plans for the immediate future.

The pity is that polls show strong public support for preserving forests. Most likely, George W. Bush and Congress will set about making a course correction on forest policy.

We hope they read the polls and come to the same conclusion as Mr. Clinton did, but not do it in the same way.

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(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society