Those who care about saving the last wild places in America's national forests were left puzzled and worried over Friday's announcement by the Bush administration on how it would treat a U.S. Forest Service rule that protects these areas. Did the President give us half a loaf, a crumb or perhaps a crust covered with toxic mold?
The administration, although uttering words of praise and saying it would temporarily uphold the policy - titled the "Roadless Area Conservation Rule" - will try to revise the rule beginning next month. It seems that record-breaking public input, including over 600 public hearings and 1.6 million comments, isn't enough for them. And instead of national protection for national treasures, the Agriculture Department, which oversees the Forest Service, apparently wants to treat these forests more like county parks.
The debate isn't new. As Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth noted last week, "I've been with the Forest Service 35 years, and we've been struggling with the roadless rule for that whole time." In fact, it was President Nixon back in 1971, not Bill Clinton, who first proposed ending the road-building mania that has been gouging taxpayers and destroying our last wild places.
I was able to attend four of those 600 local meetings, including two in old Western logging and mining towns. I may have heard people say very clearly they didn't like Bill Clinton, but I never heard anyone say they wanted more roads in their national forests. Even in the West, the majority of people favor increased forest protections.
It seems not to matter that over 90 percent of those commenting nationwide, and overwhelming majorities in poll after poll (including 64 percent of Republicans), want their forests protected. The Bush administration says it wants to repeat the process all over again, to allow more "local input."
Oddly enough, it sounds like the President is demanding a recount.
Perhaps the administration has its fingers crossed, hoping the American people are too worn out to again demand what they said they wanted the first time around. Or perhaps it hopes that reopening the rule-making process will weaken forest protection by applying the mantra of "local control" that we hear so much in the West, primarily from the allies of logging, mining and drilling industries. And mantra it is. The Agriculture Department's press release contained the word national only twice (these are national forests we're talking about) but the word local was repeated seven times. There was no talk of national interests, but plenty about "local input," "local communities," and "local expertise."
Local control sounds nice, but in decisions about public lands it is used primarily to divide and exclude Americans. On the national level, the argument is used to negate the voices of millions who care about their national parks, monuments, wilderness areas and forests, yet live far from them. Even in the West itself, the argument is used to exclude the opinions of the majority of Westerners who live in or around cities such as Albuquerque, Denver and Phoenix although these people account for most of the use of the nearby national forests.
Somehow "local control" always finds room for the influence of logging, mining and drilling interests, even if their headquarters are in faraway cities.
Meanwhile, one never hears local-control advocates calling for higher local taxes to pay for the consequences of their poor decisions. The Forest Service is running a maintenance backlog of over $8 billion in keeping up the 386,000 miles of roads already built in national forests - roads used for profit by industry. For American taxpayers who pay the bills, local control is not much different from taxation without representation.
During the decades that lobbyists and lawyers have tied up efforts to protect our last wild places, the destruction of our forests has continued. A wild forest cannot be manufactured or legislated; it can only be protected and cherished. When bulldozers tear roads through our ancient forests, what is lost is gone forever. Naturally the administration praised an enormously popular policy. But in the end, actions - not words - will determine how President Bush responds to this truly national interest.
Jim Scarantino (email@example.com), a former Philadelphia assistant district attorney, is executive director of REP America, the national grassroots organization of Republicans for environmental protection.
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