Road to bad policy.
If President Bush harbored any hopes of burnishing his abysmal environmental record before the November election, his plan to repeal the popular 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule is no way to go about it.
However, if the president is looking to solidify his support among logging and mining interests that have lobbied his administration to open roadless areas across the nation, then his proposal will certainly do the job.
The administration announced Monday that it intends to repeal the rule that put nearly 60 million acres of national forests, 2 million of them in Oregon, off limits to logging and mining. Under the pretext of complying with a 2003 decision by a federal judge in Wyoming, the administration proposed allowing state governors to recommend whether to log, drill, build, or conserve in current roadless areas.
Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman describes this proposal as a way to sidestep current litigation, and she's right about that. The federal government has abdicated its responsibility to defend a roadless rule that has overwhelming public support. But Veneman ignores the likelihood that the change will spawn a host of new lawsuits, as challenges arise to individual state management plans.
Veneman also says the new policy will improve local participation, and she's right about that, as well. It would replace a uniform, national policy with one that turns national forests into state forests.
Somewhere along the way, the Bush administration has lost track of the fact that these are national forests that demand national policies that reflect national priorities.
The Bush plan would effectively turn responsibility for managing federal lands over to individual states. While some states, Oregon hopefully among them, will attempt to protect federal roadless areas, the rule change invites wholesale road construction and logging in states such as Idaho and Alaska, where timber and mining interests wield immense political influence.
That's not how the majority of Americans want their national forests managed. During the rulemaking process, the Forest Service received 2 million public comments, the vast majority of them opposing new forest roads. In Oregon, 91 percent of nearly 65,000 comments favored protecting roadless areas.
The roadless rule made both environmental and economic sense. It acknowledged that most of the remaining federal lands without roads are that way for a reason - either their resource value is low, or their environmental value is high. It also acknowledged that the Forest Service has been unable to maintain its already vast network of deteriorating roads.
The roadless rule is a balanced policy that allows road construction when necessary for firefighting, public safety or thinning projects necessary for forest health. It ensures that at least a third of remaining national forests will continue to provide clean drinking water, wildlife habitat and increasingly rare opportunities for recreation and solitude.
The administration plan won't go into effect until after a 60-day public-comment period. It's unlikely that the Bush administration will give credence to public opposition.
Congress, however, has shown that it's more willing to pay attention. Last month, lawmakers refused to allocate any money for an administration proposal to open 9 million acres of the Tongass National Forest in Alaska to logging and mining. They should do the same for any proposal to use taxpayer dollars to pay for new roads in what remains of intact, roadless lands in our national forests.