Clinton Stands Up for the Wilderness : Veto protects Mojave and Alaskan parks

President Clinton's veto of the Interior Department's appropriation bill drew considerably less notice than the titanic game of chicken being played over the omnibus budget package. But his action was important and his objections to the many invidious riders in the $12.1-billion bill were correct. Arguably the two worst of that bad batch were provisions allowing clear cutting in Alaska's Tongass National Forest and undermining funding for and use of California's new Mojave National Preserve.

The Tongass rider, pushed by Alaska's three-person congressional delegation and the timber industry, stands as an egregious example of a special-interest handout. Drafted by Sen. Ted Stevens, it would have forced the Forest Service to permit 44% more cutting in the pristine Alaska panhandle over the next 10 years than the level the agency considers appropriate. It would also have suspended all applicable environmental and forest management laws.

This rider represented an undisguised giveaway of valuable trees to logging companies. And it would have cost taxpayers as much as $18 million in 1996 alone for Forest Service administration of such a huge logging operation.

The Tongass is the only intact, temperate-zone rain forest in the nation. Its salmon runs and other wildlife draw sportsmen from all over the country. That's why many Alaskans, including Gov. Tony Knowles, opposed this audacious grab.

The Mojave provision was no less shocking. Congress passed the Desert Protection Act last year, creating the 1.4-million-acre East Mojave National Preserve. Most of the vast desert between Los Angeles and Las Vegas remains outside the preserve and open to hunting, mining and off-road racing.

The dogged opponents of preserve, led by Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), have refused to accept Congress' intent to set aside a part of the desert wilderness. Earlier this year they crafted an appro-priations bill that cut the National Park Service budget for this preserve to just $1 annually.

The language Clinton vetoed earlier this week is hardly better. Congress raised funding for the Park Service to $500,000 but directed that this money be spent only to plan for permanent use of the park by miners, ranchers, bikers and hikers. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Land Management is overseeing the park under rules that already permit mining, grazing, dirt biking and other activities generally incompatible with use by hikers and naturalists.

Clinton's veto settles nothing. Already Lewis is circulating new language to thwart the opening of the Mojave park. Clinton must hold firm.

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