Imagine putting together a new edition of Shakespeare's complete plays, but leaving out "King Lear" to save a little space--what do you think the world would remember about your collection? Or imagine cooking Thanksgiving dinner and forgetting to put the turkey in the oven: There would still be enough to eat, but there's no question how the holiday would go down in family lore.
Well, President Clinton will hear some of the same kind of grumbling, unless he changes his forest conservation plans in the next few weeks.
Operating in legacy mode, Clinton this year had the Forest Service propose an end to road-building on the still-wild remnants of the vast national forests. It's a good, if overdue, idea--polls consistently show most Americans don't want any cutting on these public lands, much less new roads through their wildest cores. Still, give the president credit for standing up to the timber interests and their client congressional delegations.
Not too much credit though. Because, operating in his more familiar let's-make-a-deal mode, Clinton covered only 154 of the 155 national forests in his policy. He bowed to Alaska's representatives and agreed to exempt the Tongass National Forest from the ban on new roads in wild areas.
At almost 17 million acres, Tongass is the largest national forest, the richest biologically and the most threatened. Already, too much of its awesome, fog-shrouded rain forest has been turned to stump and mud slide. Now the Forest Service plans to put nearly 500 more miles of logging road through its pristine areas.
Through, for instance, the headwaters of Range Creek. I wandered its lower reaches a few weeks ago. On the beach where it drains, grizzly bears had left their deep tracks; just offshore, humpback whales blew and puffed. Giant cedars from before the last millennium hugged hemlock and Sitka spruce. Eagles patrolled above the muskeg marshes. It was deep wild, in a way no other U.S. forest is.
In other words, President Clinton might as well have demanded the Smithsonian preserve all of American jazz, except for Louis Armstrong's recordings. Any scientist choosing a forest to save would put Tongass first on the list.
Even those who live on its fringes in southeast Alaska seem convinced. Recent hearings in Juneau and Sitka saw overwhelming support for protection; even in mill towns, wilderness supporters turned out to testify in record numbers.
It's simply political pandering to Alaska's powerful congressional representatives that endangers Tongass, the same kind of pandering that started early in the president's first term when he backed down from plans to raise grazing fees on public lands.
In the past six months, Clinton has begun to build a record of real conservation achievement, naming new national monuments under the Antiquities Act and proposing the new forest protections. Doubtless he considers the united front of environmental groups demanding that he include Tongass in his plans as shrill ingrates, unable to see the doughnut for the hole.
But that's not how the legacy business works. You have to really go for it. If Clinton changes his mind on Tongass, he will be remembered as an eminent conservation president. If he doesn't, there will always be an asterisk next to his record, reminding us that he was a heart-in-the-right-place waffler.
And there will always be a series of clear-cuts in the Alaska wilds, clear-cuts that might as well be named for him.
Bill McKibben is the author of "The End of Nature."