WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Clinton administration Tuesday proposed banning road building in 43 million acres of roadless federal forests while letting local foresters decide whether to bar activities such as logging, mining and off-road-vehicle use.
But the plan defers a decision on whether to prohibit roads in 8.7 million acres of the nation's largest forest, the Tongass in Alaska's Southeast, until 2004 when officials review a separate plan governing it.
''Our objective is really to preserve and protect the values that draw millions of people each year to the forests that they love,'' Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck said from Phoenix, where he announced the proposal.
Some environmentalists expressed disappointment, saying they expected more when President Clinton announced plans for the proposal last fall.
''It doesn't match up to the vision President Clinton laid out,'' said Ken Rait, director of the Heritage Forests Campaign. Merely banning roads isn't enough -- timber companies could use helicopters and cable systems to log forests, the group said.
But Agriculture Undersecretary Jim Lyons, who along with Dombeck and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman spoke to reporters in a telephone news conference, said the plan would eliminate 73 percent of the logging that would otherwise occur in the roadless forests.
Glickman said the primary purpose of the plan was to restrict road building. It never was intended to be a ''anti-logging'' rule, he said.
Excluding the Tongass ''just leaves a gaping hole in this policy,'' said Matt Zencey, campaign manager of the Alaska Rainforest Campaign in Anchorage.
Industry groups also complained, saying the proposal -- as they had expected -- limits their access to forests. ''It's another step toward zero harvest,'' said Jim Geisinger, president of the Northwest Forestry Association in Portland, Ore.
About 60 million acres of the 192 million acres of federal forests are considered wild, or undeveloped. The rest of the acreage, governed by the Forest Service, is host to a wide range of activities, including logging, camping, skiing, mining and off-road-vehicle use.
Environmentalists complain that roads cause runoff, disrupt plant and wildlife and make it easier for people to conduct harmful activities such as logging, mining and off-road-vehicle riding.
The plan sets broad criteria for what activities to allow in forests but would have local officials make the final call. The plan also would leave it up to local foresters to decide whether roads should be banned in smaller forest parcels of 5,000 acres or less.
The forest protection plan requires no congressional action, relying on regulations to be issued by the Forest Service after a detailed environmental review and public comments.
The proposal could gain final approval at the end of the year, just before President Clinton leaves office. But environmentalists expect Republicans in Congress to try to delay the rulemaking until after Clinton's term. Court challenges from industry groups against the rule are likely.
On the Net:
Forest Service roadless area Web site: http://roadless.fs.fed.us/
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