All national forests, including Alaska's Chugach, will join the 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest in lifting blanket bans on logging, mining and other commercial uses in roadless areas, the Bush administration announced Thursday.
The administration plans to open up almost a third of the 58.5 million acres of forest previously shielded from development by the Clinton administration.
Gov. Frank Murkowski applauded the new rule Thursday, saying it provided a greater role for the state in national forest decisions. "You can be assured that I will continue to support a viable timber industry on a sustainable yield basis," he said.
"Today's decision takes a bad temporary rule for the Tongass and makes it permanent," said Tom Waldo, a staff attorney for the Juneau chapter of EarthJustice.
"Taxpayers are losing $48 million per year on road building (for timber sales) in the Tongass," Waldo said.
Waldo said environmentalists groups likely will sue to block the new rule.
Following a state lawsuit, the federal government in 2003 exempted the Tongass from Clinton's roadless rule. As a result, 2.5 million acres within its much larger roadless inventory are now open to development.
"It's really anti-climactic, as far as Alaska is concerned," said U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, a former timber lobbyist.
The rules cover forest land in 38 states and Puerto Rico, but 97 percent is in 12 Western states, including Alaska, Washington and Oregon.
It could lift the blanket prohibition on developing in more than 1 million roadless acres in the Chugach.
The Bush administration will allow governors 18 months to file petitions to add or remove protection for roadless areas in their states.
Rey said the Forest Service will make no changes on the ground during the 18-month petition period.
"It's a hotly debated item, but what we're going to see out of this, I think, is an effort by this administration to balance the areas that don't have roads in them and allow other areas to have road access," Murkowski said.
Some Democratic leaders in other states were displeased that governors were getting so much power over land use.
"Trees, wildlife and fish don't respect state boundaries, and I don't think decisions about management of roadless areas - or other areas of the national forests - should be based on those lines, either," said Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo.
Matt Mathes, a regional spokesman for the Forest Service in California, said, "We have no plans to build roads in the roadless areas of the national forests in California. ... Areas are roadless here for a reason."
The Forest Service will create a 12-member advisory committee to help establish the new rule and make recommendations on governors' petitions. However, the Forest Service will have final say on the petitions.
Petitions can be based on issues of public safety and health, wildfire risks, wildlife habitat, maintenance of dams or other public works and road access to private property.
Two federal courts remain deeply involved on the Clinton roadless rule, casting some question on the future of the current rule.
Previously, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the Clinton rule. On Wednesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit took arguments from environmental groups appealing a Wyoming judge's ruling that overturned the Clinton rule.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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