WASHINGTON - A Clinton administration ban on logging and road-building in a third of the nation's federal forests would become law under a bill introduced by Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., and 173 other House members.
The proposal would codify the so-called "roadless rule," which bans new roads in 58.5 million acres of untouched national forest land, except in rare circumstances.
The Bush administration has said it supports the ban, but environmentalists complain that the administration has not strongly defended the rule in court. The ban needs to become law to insulate pristine forests from political whims, supporters said.
"We need a law to protect the forests, no matter which way the wind blows in Washington," Inslee said Wednesday, noting that some trees on federal land are older than the country itself.
Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., the bill's chief co-sponsor, said the proposal was more than an effort to codify an agency rule.
"We are enshrining in law the views and values of the American people," Boehlert said, citing a recent national poll showing that 76 percent of those surveyed - including 60 percent of Republicans - supported protecting roadless areas.
The bill faces an uphill fight in the Republican-controlled House. Only 18 of the bill's 174 co-sponsors are Republican, and no public hearing has been scheduled.
More than 40 members of Congress, mostly Republican and mostly from the West, sent a letter to President Bush Wednesday urging him to oppose the bill, which they said would cut off access to significant portions of national forests and increase the risk of catastrophic fire. The bill also would handcuff development efforts, opponents said.
Most of the 58.5 million acres set aside are in the West, although they spread from Alaska's Tongass National Forest to Florida's Apalachicola National Forest.
Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., chairman of the Forests and Forest Health Subcommittee of the House Resources Committee, called the roadless rule a "sham" and said the Clinton administration had ignored significant Western opposition when it implemented the rule just before Clinton left office.
"It is nothing short of astonishing that national environmental groups and certain elected officials in Washington, D.C., continue to push the rule in the face of a federal judge's injunction," McInnis said.
U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge in Boise, Idaho, blocked the rule from taking effect last year, calling the policy a "Band-Aid approach" toward forest conservation that could do irreparable harm.
A coalition of environmental groups has appealed Lodge's decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The Bush administration declined to join the appeal, a decision that lawyers for the groups say hurt their cause and showed the administration's true position on the roadless rule.
Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey, who oversees forest issues, disputed that Wednesday. The administration stands by its commitment to protect roadless areas in national forests, he said.
USDA is working on a new rule that would be "better balanced" than the Clinton rule, Rey said, "and most importantly that will pass legal muster, which the Clinton rule has not so far."
The Inslee-Boehlert bill, which is supported by a host of environmental groups, does not resolve the legal issues raised by the May 2001 court ruling, Rey said.
But supporters said a federal law would make the court ruling moot and demonstrate bipartisan support for the roadless rule. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., backs a similar measure in the Senate.
"It's time for the Congress to act on behalf of future generations who deserve the opportunity to enjoy these precious lands," said Jane Danowitz, director of the Heritage Forests Campaign, a national alliance of organizations working to protect national forests.