Roadless plan focus now shifts to public, courts and Congress

Posted: Friday, May 19, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Now that President Clinton has made his sweeping proposal to protect 43 million acres of roadless national forests, the focus shifts to three other arenas -- the public, Congress and the courts.

Citizens have the chance to speak out on the mammoth proposal at one of 300 public meetings -- two in every national forest -- during a comment period that ends July 17.

Forest Service officials say they are making an unprecedented effort to make sure the public is heard, as the officials post the plan on the Internet and make hard copies available at public libraries and government offices.

Major environmental groups like the Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society plan to wage a massive campaign to turn out supporters at public meetings and to get them to send in comments. The groups will use the Internet, radio and TV ads, buttons and even baseball caps to spread the word.

''This will probably be the largest civilian mobilization effort the environmental movement has ever undertaken,'' said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club.

The stakes are high for the environmental movement, as the plan would protect millions of acres across the West from development, including 3.5 million acres in Washington and Oregon, 9 million in Idaho, nearly 6 million in Montana and more than 4 million each in California and Colorado -- to mention just some of the states affected.

Green activists hope their campaign convinces administration officials to make two key changes before the plan becomes final late this year -- include the sprawling Tongass forest in Alaska in the plan and ban logging in roadless areas.

Industry activists, who could lose access to forests for logging, mining, grazing and recreation, don't put much hope in the comment period. They believe Clinton has made up his mind to lock them out of the woods.

''The Clinton administration telling local interests that they'll have meaningful input is dishonest and shameful,'' said Don Amador, western representative of the BlueRibbon Coalition, a recreation industry group.

Nonetheless, industry officials plan to run some advertisements of their own to encourage people to speak up for the industry's point of view -- that the plan will increase the risk of huge wildfires and bug infestation in forests.

But W. Henson Moore, president of the American Forest & Paper Association, a timber industry group, said the advertising effort will be meager compared with the environmentalists' effort. ''We cannot match them in firepower,'' he said.

About 60 million of the 192 million acres of federal forests are considered wild, or undeveloped. The rest, governed by the Forest Service, is host to a wide range of activities, including logging, camping, skiing, mining and off-road-vehicle use.

The plan, while banning road development, sets broad criteria as to whether logging, grazing and other activities should be allowed in forests but lets local foresters make the 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.

As the public comments on the plan, GOP lawmakers -- who view the plan as fatally flawed -- will consider tacking legislation onto an appropriations bill that would delay or block the forest proposal.

''This still remains a phenomenally transparent attempt to create a legacy for this president,'' said Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho.

Craig said he and Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., have discussed the possibility of legislation but have not yet made a decision.

But others say that legislation could be a tough sell in an election year. President Clinton has succeeded in recent years in blocking most attempts to attach environmental policy to appropriations bills. Opponents say their best bet is the courts. Craig points out that President Carter's attempts to mandate a roadless policy without input from Congress was stopped by a judge. He says he's confident Clinton's proposal will be struck down as well.

The counties of Boise and Valley in Idaho and Boise Cascade Corp. already have a suit pending to try to stop the forest plan. They argued in a court filing late last month that the administration lacks authority from Congress and the Constitution to pursue the roadless initiative through an executive rulemaking.

But environmentalists point out that two previous efforts to use legal means to stop the effort -- one in Wyoming and one in Idaho -- failed.

The administration effort ''can withstand court tests, there's no doubt,'' said Michael Francis of The Wilderness Society.

Republicans claim the plan is flawed in part because environmentalists have had unusually good access to administration officials in the crafting of the document.

Despite that charge, environmentalists were railing against the plan when it was released Tuesday, saying the document needs to be fixed.

''It makes it pretty clear that the administration is not in our back pocket,'' said Ken Rait of the Heritage Forests Campaign.

Not so, says Doug Crandall, chief of staff for the forests and forest health subcommittee of the House Resources Committee.

''This is just part of the strategy,'' he said. ''I don't see anything they are not getting.''

What environmentalists fail to win in the roadless proposal they will obtain through other executive rulemakings and monument designations, he said.

For now, the administration isn't tipping their hand as to what the final roadless plan will look like.

But they say it will almost certainly change from what they proposed Tuesday.

''This is a proposal that will be improved as we seek public comment,'' Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck said.

Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman stressed, ''This is the beginning of the process.''


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