WASHINGTON - Governors would have to petition the federal government to block road-building in remote areas of national forests under a Bush administration proposal to boost logging.
Environmentalists say the proposed rule change, outlined this week in the Federal Register, would signal the end of the so-called roadless rule, which blocks road construction in nearly one-third of national forests as a way to prevent logging and other commercial activity in backcountry woods.
Without a national policy against road construction, forest management would revert back to individual forest plans that in many cases allow roads and other development on most of the 58 million acres now protected by the roadless rule, environmentalists say.
"Basically I think this proposal takes away protections on a national level" against road-building and logging, Robert Vandermark, co-director of the Heritage Forest Campaign, said Thursday.
"I can't imagine the governors of Montana or Wyoming or Colorado moving ahead with this thing and saying we want to petition to get in" to protect roadless areas, said Michael Francis, national forest director for The Wilderness Society.
Forest Service spokeswoman Heidi Valetkevitch stressed that the proposal was preliminary, but called it an accurate statement of the administration's intentions.
Officials had said last year they would develop a plan to allow governors to seek exemptions from the roadless rule. The latest plan turns that on its head by making governors petition the Agriculture Department if they want to maintain restrictions on timbering in their state.
"The roadless rule is struck down nationwide," Valetkevitch said, referring to a 2003 ruling by a federal judge in Wyoming. "We are trying to create a rule that will pass legal muster."
Mark Rey, the Agriculture undersecretary who directs U.S. forest policy, said the Federal Register notice was just one of many options the administration is considering.
Rey said the previous plan to maintain the existing rule while allowing governors to opt out "is not something we can do," because of the Wyoming ruling.
The Clinton administration adopted the roadless rule during its final days in office in January 2001, calling it an important protection for backcountry forests. Environmentalists hailed that action, but the timber industry and some Republican lawmakers have criticized it as overly intrusive and even dangerous, saying it has left millions of acres exposed to catastrophic wildfire.
The three-year-old rule has twice been struck down by federal judges, most recently in a Wyoming case decided in July 2003. That case, which environmentalists have appealed, is one of several pending legal challenges, complicating efforts to issue a new plan.
The Federal Register notice calls for public comment to begin later this month and continue into September, although Rey called that timetable uncertain at best.