WASHINGTON – The U.S. Forest Service (search) is currently reviewing public comments on a proposal to replace national blanket protection of land embodied in the Clinton-era Roadless Area Conservation Rule (search) with a state-by-state system that allows governors to submit plans for maintaining the national forests in their jurisdiction.
Once the public comment period ends next month, governors will have 18 months to submit requests for continued protection for the roadless areas or seek permission to open them up to other use. The Forest Service would then be responsible for reviewing and accepting or rejecting these proposals.
Environmentalists are trying to stop the change. They say the Bush administration's move to overturn the protected status of the nearly 60 million acres of national forest is an affront to America's natural assets and a clear attempt to cater to loggers, drillers and developers.
"Our national forest policy insures at the very least we have a lowest common denominator or a baseline for protecting our roadless areas. If we leave it to a state-by-state policy, we risk not getting the baseline level of protection that we need," said Dusty Horwitt, an analyst at the Environmental Working Group (search). "The risk is we really don’t know who the governors are going to be in the future."
"I think their proposal is just a cheap ploy to increase commercial logging and increase taxpayer-subsidized logging road construction," Sean Cosgrove, Sierra Club (search) national forest policy specialist, told FOXNews.com.
Environmentalists say they are fearful of such Republican governors as Colorado's Bill Owens, Idaho's Dirk Kempthorne and Montana's Judy Martz, who they contend are more likely to be swayed by timber interests. Those who spoke with FOXNews.com universally praised New Mexico Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, whom they called a good steward of that state's forests. Richardson has called the Bush move a mistake, and said that he will try to insure that his state's 1.1 million roadless acres will be preserved.
The Roadless Rule covers 30 percent of the 191 million acres of national forest. Virtually all of the land is in the West.
Although roadless areas exist in 39 states, 97 percent of the land is in just 12 states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
In Idaho, 9.3 million acres, or 17 percent of the state's total land mass, has been affected by the roadless designation, and Idaho was one of the first states to challenge the Clinton administration rule.
"The old rule said in essence that Washington, D.C., decision-makers know better than those of us in Idaho what should work for us," said Kempthorne, who appeared with Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman (search) on July 12 in Boise, Idaho, to announce the proposed rule. "We will now have a roadless process that can be accomplished by respecting state sovereignty, affording input from the impacted communities and with the appropriate level of informed decision-making."
The Bush administration says that by moving away from the Roadless Rule, national forests would gain clear legal status.
"In July of 2003 a federal court struck down the [existing] rule nationwide, blocking it from taking effect at all. Therefore, until today there has not been a national rule covering roadless areas," Veneman said at the announcement.
Administration officials add that the move has little to do with business interests and everything to do with state's rights and protecting the environment. Under the new rules, they say, each governor will be able to address the problems unique to that state's habitat.
"I think the governors are pleased that we're willing to work with them so we're not putting in place a one-size-fits-all policy," said Julie Quick, a USDA spokeswoman who rejected the idea that the policies would lack federal oversight.
"We'll work with states. They’ll bring proposals and make the final decision. From that standpoint, all of that will be implemented by the same agency in the federal government," she said.
But the new rule reinforces the fundamental distrust that environmentalists express over the Bush administration's measures on forests, water and air.
"The reason they're interested in changing the rules of the game is they know it will make it easier to lean on the states to open those areas to timber interests," said Betsy Loyless, vice president for policy at the League of Conservation Voters (search).
Loyless said her biggest concern about the change relates to "what we know about the importance of these roadless lands serving as bridges, connecting conservation lands that are needed by wildlife." She said areas that remain roadless help maintain the quality of the resources. "The trees, the wilderness quality of those areas, we lose an awful lot."
Environmental groups plan on taking advantage of this public comment period. Many groups said that the old rule was wildly popular and enjoyed a record 2.5 million overwhelmingly positive comments. So far, the Forest Service has received 79,000 comments on the newly proposed rule.
"Our members are very interested in making sure that they are heard, or at least allowed to comment," Cosgrove said. "This administration has probably been more hostile to the environment than any other administration in modern history. I think our members are fully aware of that and will be voicing their opinion."