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Bush Administration Lifts Wilderness Road Ban

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

The Bush administration has officially overturned one of the most significant land conservation measures of the Clinton presidency--this was a ban on roads, logging and development in nearly one-third of the nation's forests. Although 38 states do have some roadless forests, most of this land is in the West, and a lot of it in Alaska. Reporter Elizabeth Arnold joins us from Alaska, where as many as 50 timber sales are now planned within the Tongass National Forest.

First off, Elizabeth, what's really happened this week? Because some part of this has been in the works since the first months of the Bush presidency, yes?

ELIZABETH ARNOLD reporting:

Yeah, Alex. The so-called `roadless rule' that protected nearly 60 million acres of national forest--it's been a contentious issue since 2001. The Bush administration suspended the Clinton administration's ban right after taking office, so yesterday's action was actually the final step in repealing it. And this new rule basically gives governors 18 months to petition the Agriculture Department, if they want to, about which forests should be left untouched or which forests should be opened to development. The administration is, in short, giving states more control over how federal lands--specifically these last remaining roadless forests--should be managed. And, you know, some say that sounds great: local control. States know best about their particular forests. But opponents say now, `Wait a minute. These are national forests to be managed for all of the public, not simply for a particular state's economic interest.'

CHADWICK: Do we know what the states are going to do with this authority? I mean, is there a real possibility that the last remaining roadless portions of forests in places like Montana and Alaska are going to go?

ARNOLD: Well, first of all, Alex, this is good GOP politics--specifically in parts of the West where many people believe the federal government's always had too much control. It's good politics because it plays to the administration's base, to industry. It's about timber jobs. And Mark Rey, the undersecretary of Agriculture in charge of the Forest Service, said yesterday again and again in announcing this that, you know, this is about ensuring decisions are developed around local conditions, local political consensus.

Now whether all of this results in wholesale logging of last remaining roadless forests, that all depends now on the governors, the Forest Service and--even more importantly, Alex--the market. Rey said yesterday he thinks states will pretty much protect what was protected by the original rule. But, remember, even if the states petition one way or another, the Forest Service ultimately has the final say now in what should happen, and even if the Forest Service proposes a timber sale in a particular area, the industry still has to want to bid on it. That depends on whether they can make any money on it, and that depends on the global timber market.

CHADWICK: Well, what about Alaska, which has so much national forest? How are these new rules going to play out there?

ARNOLD: Well, about a quarter of the so-called roadless area, Alex--they're right here in Alaska, and much of that is in the Tongass National Forest, in the southeastern part of the state. And while it was said yesterday that this new rule would have no effect on the Tongass, that's simply because the Forest Service already exempted the Tongass from the roadless rule just before Christmas last year, so it wasn't protected. And since that exemption, the agency has been proposing new timber sales and the roads that go along with those sales in the Tongass. And that's been applauded by the timber industry here, which has been on its last legs for years, and has environmentalists, but also some native communities--fishermen, tourism operators, all kinds of folks--up in arms.

But the more interesting thing, Alex, is that there hasn't been a whole lot of interest in the timber. And remember these sales and the road building they require are largely subsidized by federal tax dollars. So this question is not only environmental--Does the public want these forests roaded and logged?--but also economic--At what cost does the public want these forests roaded and logged?

CHADWICK: Reporter Elizabeth Arnold in Anchorage, Alaska.

Elizabeth, thank you.

ARNOLD: Thank you, Alex. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Elizabeth Arnold
Elizabeth Arnold is a freelance reporter for NPR. From 2000 - 2004, she was an NPR national correspondent, covering America's public lands with a focus on the environment, politics, economics, and culture.
Alex Chadwick
For more than 30 years, Alex Chadwick has been bringing the world to NPR listeners as an NPR News producer, program host and currently senior correspondent. He's reported from every continent except Antarctica.
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