To some, they are America's national treasures: The pristine expanses of redwoods, Douglas firs and giant sequoias, lush stretches of spruce, juniper and cypresses, 190 million unspoiled acres of wilderness known as America's national forests.
But to the timber and mining industries, those same vast parcels of land represent jobs and an opportunity to bring employment and growth to economically downtrodden areas surrounding the parks.
And now those industries see a chance to have their concerns heeded after eight years of dealing with a Clinton administration they felt was unsympathetic to their needs.
The loggers and miners hope to convince the Bush White House to allow road construction, logging and mining in the forest areas that the Clinton administration roped off for protection shortly before leaving office.
"These lands grow 24 billion board feet of wood every year," said Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council (AFRC), an interest group representing scores of forest landowners and forest product manufacturers.
But under the Clinton administration's roadless initiative — which placed nearly a third of the nation's national forests off limits to most logging — "less than 10 percent of the wood that is being grown is being harvested, grown and manufactured into product," West said. According to West, in the last eight years, the U.S. went from 20 percent dependency on foreign forest products to 40 percent.
This move by the Clinton administration prompted AFRC and other groups to file six lawsuits in an effort to roll back a roadless initiative they felt was overly restrictive. A federal judge in Idaho agreed and blocked the implementation of the Clinton initiative, saying the process didn't follow the law on how to make these decisions.
That decision has environmentalists crying foul as they hope to keep the home to hundreds of rare plants and endangered species off limits. "We should be looking at removing roads, rather than talking about going into those last wild places and building them," said Mike Roselle, a lifelong conservationist and a Greenpeace Forest campaign coordinator.
Roselle says that in the last 50 years the percentage of roadless areas have been seriously reduced.
"The thickest forests are either in deep valleys or in the most elevated areas," he said. "The low-lying valleys were the first to be logged, so it's up to us to try to protect the rugged and inaccessible areas that are now being discussed for logging and road building."
Roselle said President Clinton's decision to close these lands to development came after 600 local hearings and more than 1.5 million public comments.
In an effort to quell the bickering on both sides, President Bush ordered a 60-day public review, saying the Clinton rule is too restrictive and requires more local input.
"We've been trying to reach a conclusion, a decision, on how to manage roadless areas for over thirty years in the Forest Service," said Chris Risbrudt, the associate deputy chief of the U.S. Forest Service. "This is the latest iteration of asking the public how they think they should be managed to achieve the values that they want today."
And the public comment period is prompting spirited arguments from both sides.
"These forests are dying because of diseases and overgrowth and the potential of forest fires," said West. "The vast majority of the proposed protested land areas are at risk to catastrophic wildfire. What's more, wilderness doesn't have any public benefit at all. The number one recreation use of these lands is driving pleasure and accessing developed areas for recreation. Roadless and wilderness doesn't provide that to the public."
That assertion infuriates preservationists who accuse Bush of being unconcerned with the plight of the environment: from oil drilling in Alaska's wilds to the coast of Florida.
"They are trying to turn this into an issue where we're the ones who are risking the health of the forest unless they can run in there with their bulldozers and chainsaws," said Roselle, the Greenpeace representative. "Somehow it's all going to die and burn down. Well, that's not going to happen. It's been there for a long time, it's survived the last few fire seasons and it's getting healthier and healthier all the time."
The logging and mining industries scored a temporary victory this week: The Bush administration declined to appeal the Idaho judge's decision blocking the Clinton-era ban on logging and road construction.