The Bush administration proposed a new policy Monday leaving it up to governors to petition the federal government to block any road building in national forests.
The proposal would replace the Clinton administration policy banning road building in a large swath of the nation's 58.6 million acres of roadless areas, roughly one-quarter of which is in Alaska.
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced the proposed policy in Boise, Idaho. She also launched an 18-month interim rule that requires Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth to approve any new roads in previously protected areas.
So far, the proposal has provoked alarm from Juneau and Ketchikan environmentalists who worry that Gov. Frank Murkowski could use such a policy to pull away current protections for many of the state's roadless areas.
"It puts so much power into the hands of the governors," said Tom Waldo, an attorney for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund in Juneau.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's proposed policy stipulates that governors may "seek establishment of management requirements for National Forest System inventoried roadless areas," according to the notice that will be published on the Federal Register this week.
The proposal is subject to a 60-day public comment period that will begin on the Federal Register publication date. If adopted, it would allow governors 18 months to develop petitions regarding their state's roadless areas.
Murkowski spokeswoman Becky Hultburg said Monday it is premature to speculate how he would respond to the proposal, but she told the Associated Press, "I can't imagine the governor at this point petitioning the Forest Service to make any additional areas roadless."
Southeast Alaska Conservation Council's Aurah Landau said Monday that the current Tongass Land Management Plan is jeopardized by the proposed policy.
Landau called it the "irony of ironies" that the state of Alaska entered a legal settlement with the federal government in 2003 so it could develop its own management plan for the Tongass, but now USDA's proposal could allow the Tongass plan to be "gutted" by the governor.
"All the areas that are currently protected could become unprotected," Landau said, naming locations like Taku River Inlet and the Cleveland Peninsula, both in Southeast Alaska.
The current Tongass plan allows road development in some roadless areas but provides protection for other spots.
The Clinton roadless policy was struck down in federal court in Wyoming in 2003 but remains under appeal.
Two logging plans were approved in Northwest roadless areas earlier this month: one on a 665-acre swath of the Tongass on Kuiu Island, and other on 19,465 acres in Oregon's Siskiyou National Forest burned by the 2003 Biscuit fire.
Also in the Tongass, a proposed 18,000-acre harvest on Gravina Island near Ketchikan is set for approval next month.
The Bush proposal is being lauded by Republican politicians in the West and decried by some Democratic governors and many environmentalists.
Elmer Makua, a tribal member of the Ketchikan Indian Community who opposes the Gravina sale, concedes that Southeast Alaska could benefit from economic growth and a "viable" timber industry.
But Makua worries that the Bush administration's proposed policy to leave its roadless policy up to governors would result in greater power for special interest groups and less public input.
"If it's up to special interests, it may not be the right decision," Makua said.
Washington Gov. Gary Locke, a Democrat, said Monday in a written statement: "Once again the Bush administration has abdicated its leadership on a critical environmental issue."
U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., said the plan "embraces the fact that local people are the best stewards of our forests. It injects common sense and local control into Clinton's eleventh-hour, mindless edict."
"It offers very little protection of some of the most pristine areas in Oregon and in the West," said Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski's spokeswoman Mary Ellen Glynn. "The (Clinton) roadless rule is something that has been widely supported by most people in the United States as well as Oregonians."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.