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    A Times Editorial

    Logging in the wilderness

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 13, 2001

    A federal rule that would save our most pristine national forests from destruction is in danger of being overturned. On Thursday, a federal judge in Idaho issued a preliminary injunction to stop the U.S. Forest Service from enforcing the rule that would keep logging, mining, drilling and roads out of wilderness areas. Environmental groups accuse the Bush administration of giving the judge tacit encouragement to challenge the rule.

    They may have a point.

    Adopted in the final days of the Clinton administration, the Roadless Area Conservation Rule would put 31 percent of U.S. forest land (about 68-million acres) out of the reach of loggers and miners. The land includes some of the nation's last remaining old-growth forests and half of Alaska's Tongass National Forest, our largest temperate rain forest. While that might sound like a large amount of wilderness, it is less than 3 percent of the nation's total land mass.

    The rule addresses an ongoing battle in U.S. forests between conservation and exploitation of the resources. Already, 386,000 miles of roads exist in our forests. Many are built, at taxpayer expense, so timber companies can reach remote public forests for clear-cut logging. The practice costs taxpayers about $1.2-billion a year.

    When President Bush took office, his administration delayed enacting the rule, criticizing it as a last-minute regulation. That was a false characterization. The process to write the rule took more than a year, included 600 meetings and drew 1.6-million responses, 95 percent of them in favor of saving the forests.

    The state of Idaho and Boise Cascade timber company filed suit against the U.S. government to overturn the rule, and the Bush administration was slow to signal whether it would even defend itself. Finally, on May 4, Bush's agriculture secretary, Ann M. Veneman, said the administration "is committed to providing roadless protection for our national forests."

    Had it ended there, President Bush might have begun to repair his anti-environmental image. But Veneman's support of the wilderness designation was qualified. She said her department would seek to amend the rule by allowing local officials in the West (who are often swayed by logging interests) to influence the outcome.

    She neglected to recognize that the American public -- the real owners of the forests -- had already chosen protection of the wilderness. Now that a judge has put the rule in abeyance, it is not clear whether the administration will work hard to save it.

    In this effort to conserve our last wild places for future generations, President Bush appears to sympathize, once again, with the logging, mining and drilling industries rather than the will of the people.

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