Will White House save roadless forests?


THE BUSH administration must feel like Br'er Rabbit now that a federal judge says it can't ban logging in roadless areas of national forests.

This judicial ruling allows the administration to pretend it supports the roadless policy devised by President Clinton, even though it intends to significantly change that sweeping forest protection order. Sounds like the cunning Br'er Rabbit pleading with Br'er Fox not to throw him in the brier patch, even though that was his real objective.

In fact, President Bush tacitly encouraged the judge to block the rule, which prevents commercial activity on 58 million acres of wilderness area. Mr. Bush delayed enactment of the rule, then pledged to amend it to allow local interests (i.e., logging, mining, drilling) to influence the plan, forest by forest.

Both the president and U.S. District Judge Edward J. Lodge, who blocked the rule, maintain that the Clinton administration failed to adequately consider public opinion in drafting the plan.

They are decidedly wrong. The policy was adopted after three years of discussion, 600 open meetings, 1.6 million public comments. Public opinion polls show overwhelming support for the plan to set aside 31 percent of national forest lands from road-building and exploitive industry.

The 380,000 miles of roads already carved through the national forests testify to the timber industry's longstanding influence. Those roads created a staggering $8.5 billion backlog in maintenance work. And timber sales from the forests have cost the taxpayers billions of dollars.

Nonetheless, Judge Lodge found that the logging ban would cause "irreparable harm" to logging companies, which challenged the Forest Service policy. But the clearest irreversible harm will be to wilderness forests, which have taken centuries to grow and can be quickly lost forever to the bulldozer and saw.

The future of the nation's forests lies in conservation, in protecting valuable natural habitat. Most of these woods already are open to commercial use. It's time for balance in our national forest policy, not continued exploitation and deference to local economic interests.

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