States hope to skirt forest protections

Times Staff Writer

The future of some of the West's most unspoiled national forestlands remains in flux more than two months after a federal judge reinstated protections on nearly 50 million acres of backcountry.

Nowhere is that uncertainty more in evidence than in Idaho, which has the largest and wildest assemblage of roadless national forest in the Lower 48 states.

In October, shortly after a district court in California restored President Clinton's ban on most road-building and logging in the backcountry, Idaho petitioned the federal government to loosen the restrictions on its 9.3 million roadless acres.

Then, at a hearing in Washington last week, Idaho Gov. James E. Risch put a much greener spin on his state's intentions, saying he wanted to honor the Clinton prohibitions.

The testimony by Risch, a Republican, not only raised questions, but underscored the degree to which the roadless forest issue remains in play.

Clinton's 2001 road ban placed about a third of the country's national forestlands off-limits to most natural resource development, a move that was immediately divisive.

Environmentalists hailed the protections for guarding what they call "the last best places" -- strongholds for wildlife and clean water. But the limits infuriated officials in many conservative Western states with strong timber and mining lobbies.

Lawsuits were filed. The Clinton rule was put on hold by a Wyoming federal court. Then last year the Bush administration dropped the Clinton ban in favor of new regulations giving states an unprecedented role in deciding whether to open their roadless U.S. forestlands to development.

The Bush rule was overturned in September. But that did not put an end to state involvement. States can still use the long-standing Administrative Procedures Act to ask the federal government to alter the Clinton restrictions. Idaho and Colorado have filed petitions, and Utah plans to.

"Our general concern for the overall process is that at the end of the day, we'll have something that praises the value of roadless areas but doesn't do a lot to actually limit the destructive activities that could take place," said Mat Jacobson, deputy director of the Heritage Forests Campaign.

The Idaho petition, for instance, would allow timber-cutting and road-building in the bulk of the state's roadless acreage to maintain "forest health."

Though Risch said roads would be temporary and only dead or dying trees would be cut, the petition language appears much more permissive.

"We have to reconcile the two," acknowledged Dale Harris, co-chairman of the Roadless Area Conservation National Advisory Committee, before which Risch appeared. "We have to take the governor at his word, and we were encouraged by what he said. It made our job easier," Harris said. But the petition is "a work in progress."

The roadless forest committee will forward its recommendations to the U.S. secretary of Agriculture, who will have the final say in whether to grant the states' requests.

Colorado's petition, affecting 4.4 million acres, would drop coal-mining lands and ski areas from the road ban and allow timber-cutting to reduce the wildfire threat around communities.

Utah has indicated it will ask the federal government to jettison the Clinton restrictions on all 4 million acres.

If the petitions are granted, it will take one to two years for them to take effect through the federal rule-making process.

In the meantime, Wyoming is seeking to reopen its lawsuit against the Clinton regulations. And the September ruling could be appealed.

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