Whittling at Forest Protections

From Day 1, as part of its general rollback of environmental protections, the Bush administration has sought to unravel the intricate tapestry of rules and regulations that have shielded the national forests from excessive logging and other commercial activity. In the last six months alone, the administration has finalized or proposed new rules that would short-circuit environmental reviews, restrict public participation in land-use decisions and weaken safeguards for endangered species. The White House says current rules are cumbersome and thwart other worthy purposes, like preventing forest fires. But the environmental community suspects, not without reason, that the administration's basic objective here is to open more of the forests to its friends in the timber industry.

The administration's latest target is President Bill Clinton's broadly popular "roadless rule," which placed 58.5 million acres of national forest off limits to new road-building and, in effect, new commercial activity. Some of Mr. Bush's advisers had hoped that the courts would overturn the rule; when that did not happen, they chose to amend it administratively, initially in two ways. First, as part of a settlement with Alaska in a case the administration insists it could not have won, it will seek an exemption for Alaska's Tongass National Forest, the crown jewel of the system. The practical effect will be to open 300,000 acres of the Tongass to logging. That may not sound like much, but these acres include some of the forest's oldest trees and most valuable watersheds, and new roads will inevitably be required to reach the affected tracts because they are spread throughout the forest.

The administration also says it will allow state governors to seek their own exemptions — in part, it says, because the governors were excluded from the rule-making process to begin with. Since several Western governors overseeing millions of roadless acres detest the roadless rule — four of them in addition to Alaska challenged it in court — this could become the loophole that swallows the rule.

A bipartisan group in the House has introduced legislation that would codify the Clinton roadless rule into law. There is similar legislation in the Senate. Both bills deserve approval before more damage is done to one of the country's most useful environmental regulations.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company