WASHINGTON — The Bush administration will allow a ban on road-building in much of the nation’s federal forest lands to take effect next week but will propose changes to it in June, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said Friday.
The ban, a pivotal part of former President Clinton’s environmental legacy, ropes off 58.5 million acres – about a third of the federal forest land – from developers, loggers and mining companies. These industries have been lobbying to have the measure reversed.
Veneman did not provide details on the changes that will be offered. But she said they will seek to ensure local input on individual forest decisions. She called the plan a “commonsense approach to roadless protection.”
“Through this action we affirm the department’s commitment to the important challenge of protecting roadless values,” she said at a news conference.
Clinton’s policy, announced Jan. 5, was supposed to take effect in March. The Bush administration delayed implementation until May 12 while it conducted a review.
Veneman said the review showed a need to make sure the concerns of states, communities, Indian tribes and individuals are addressed. She said the proposed amendments next month “would lay out a process for local input on local decisions for local areas.”
Once the amendments are proposed, a public comment period will begin, Veneman said. How soon a plan is finalized will depend on how many comments are received.
Clinton’s plan generated 1.6 million public comments.
The vast majority of roadless federal forests are in the West, including parts of Idaho’s Bitterroot range and Alaska’s Tongass, viewed by environmentalists as North America’s rain forest.
Smaller sections are scattered across the country from Florida’s Apalachicola National Forest and Virginia’s George Washington National Forest to New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
The Clinton administration began creating the rules about three years ago, but did not issue them until two weeks before President Clinton left office.
The ban was praised by environmentalists as a way to protect the nation’s most pristine forest lands from developers and preserve critical wildlife habitats. Opponents, including the timber and mining industries, said the rules needlessly place valuable resources off-limits.
The state of Idaho and timber company Boise Cascade sued in federal court in Boise seeking to block the rule from taking effect. The Bush administration had until Friday to file a brief with the court outlining its analysis of the rule.
Veneman said the administration planned to tell the court it does not favor an injunction blocking implementation of the ban but will work on amending the plan. In an interim decision, U.S. District Judge Edward J. Lodge rejected a call to immediately block the Clinton policy. But he said there was “strong evidence” the rule-making process was hurried, that the Forest Service was not prepared to produce a “coherent proposal or meaningful dialogue and that the end result was predetermined.”
Prior to Veneman’s announcement, Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, said he would be disappointed if the Bush administration kept the ban in place while a new rule was created. Such a move could put forests in the West at risk to insects, disease and fire because the roadless areas will be inaccessible, he said.
“What has us worried is what they are going to be doing in the interim,” said West, whose Portland, Ore.-based group represents timber interests.
Veneman said as the administration works to come up with amendments, it will seek to ensure protection against wildfires, insects and other issues that could affect communities, homes and property.
Marty Hayden, legislative director for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, said Thursday he was worried any changes would return the government to where it was three years ago — trying to maintain 380,000 miles of roads that have an $8.5 billion maintenance backlog.
“They have chosen not to suspend it because they are feeling the heat of the public support that was behind the rule in the first place,” Hayden said. “But they are still heading down a path for undoing it.”