WASHINGTON—The Bush administration ended a four-year-old ban on development in roadless areas of national forests Thursday. The move could pave the way for oil and gas drilling, logging, mining and road building in 34.3 million acres of untouched woods.
The new rule gives governors of pro-development Western states greater say over forest management in their states, which environmental groups fear will lead to development that threatens fish and wildlife in pristine areas.
The first intrusions into the forests will probably be by natural gas-drilling rigs rather than chainsaws and timber mills because of market forces, according to economists, forest scientists and industry officials.
Either way, change is likely to come, if slowly, to some of the 58.5 million acres that the Clinton administration in its waning days put off-limits to new development.
The new state-by-state rules will affect no more than 34.3 million acres because the other 24.2 million acres have other development bans that aren't being lifted, Bush administration officials said.
Most of those areas are in the West, especially in Idaho, Montana and Alaska.
It's too early to tell how much of the 34.3 million acres will be opened and how much will remain protected, said Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey, a former timber-industry lobbyist.
Changes in the rules for roadless areas can take anywhere from several months to more than two years to complete because the process is based on state recommendations and federal forest scientists, he said.
Republican governors and timber- and energy-industry officials said the rule change would give local residents and officials more say in what happens in their backyards instead of the one-size-fits-all moratorium imposed by the Clinton administration.
Citing numerous legal challenges from Western states, Rey said allowing states to tell the Forest Service how they think their forests should be managed should diffuse a contentious issue that has simmered for 40 years.
"Our approach will foster better collaboration," Rey said in a conference call with reporters.
Democrats and environmentalists see conflict ahead.
"You're going to see tensions dramatically increase over land-use issues in the West, and that's unfortunate," said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat.
Environmental groups said the Bush administration talks about collaboration and more public input but is going against public wishes. The initial Clinton rule got the most public comment of any such rule, and more than 90 percent was positive.
The Bush rule, proposed last July, has drawn nearly 1.8 million negative public comments, and Rey said that comprised more than 95 percent of the comments. Still, he dismissed that as insignificant because most were form letters.
"The federal government has given locals a say on how the lands in their backyards are going to be managed," said Mike Journee, a spokesman for Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, a leading critic of Clinton's edict.
Environmentalists and former Clinton officials said the new rule is bad for the environment.
"This is a step backward for those who want to keep wild places wild and a win for those that want to continue development," said Mike Dombeck, a former Clinton Forest Service chief and now a professor of global environmental management at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point.
The big winners are likely to be the energy industry because a long timber slump put lots of small sawmills out of business, while the oil and gas business is booming, said John Perez-Garcia, a professor of forest economics at the University of Washington.
"From the timber industry standpoint, the easy stuff is gone; there's a reason these roadless areas are roadless," Dombeck said. "The economic incentive to enter these areas for oil and gas companies has greatly increased."
It could mean up to 11 trillion of cubic feet of natural gas is developed in areas that had been off-limits, said Jeff Eshelman, a spokesman for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, which represents companies exploring for energy development.
"We have to find ways and work with local communities to evaluate these lands and see if they are best for oil and gas activities, recreation, whatever," Eshelman said.
The Clinton administration didn't consult with the Department of Energy when it banned development, but the new state-by-state rules will include Energy Department input, Rey said.
Timber industry officials said they see the energy industry moving faster, especially in the Southwest, where few sawmills are left.
"It's good for the environment; it's good for the watershed; it's good for wildlife, and it will allow the public to have confidence when these areas are protected," said Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Research Council, which represents more than 100 timber-related companies
Development will come slowly, said supporters of Bush's action. Until state plans are adopted, there is a moratorium on development, Rey said.
Said West of the timber industry, "Chainsaws, drilling rigs and bulldozers are not being gassed up as a result of today's announcement."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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