When Steve Lauer thinks about logging roads, he remembers the time last November when he got lost in a snowstorm hunting elk in the mountains of Montana. After 36 hours, rescuers found him - cold, wet, hungry, and worried about what his wife and two kids must be thinking.
If it weren't for those logging roads providing access into the Kootenai National Forest, Mr. Lauer says, "I might not have been so lucky as to have people hike around and find me."
Next door in Idaho, Craig Gehrke looks at the same kind of dirt roads bulldozed into the national forests and sees devastation: soil erosion that reduces water quality and hurts fish; "fragmented forests and damaged, or destroyed, habitat" for grizzly bears, wolverines, lynx, and other animals that roam through large areas.
During winter rainstorms in the Pacific Northwest in recent years, such roads also have been blamed for landslides that have destroyed homes and taken lives.
"Building roads may be the [United States] Forest Service's single most environmentally destructive land-management practice," says Mr. Gehrke, regional director of the Wilderness Society, an environmental group with some 250,000 members.
Conservationists have long wrangled with loggers, ranchers, and miners over the decline of Western wildlands, particular on the nearly half-billion acres of federal land overseen by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.
The Wilderness Society just completed a two-year study in Idaho showing the loss of 1 million acres of roadless areas in national forests there over the past decade. This new information provides political ammunition for those in Congress now pushing to cut - if not halt - road-building in national forests.
Critics say such roads not only cause environmental damage but also amount to a subsidy for the timber industry.
But the issue also raises questions about the need for forest products that benefit all of society, plus other things the roads provide, such as public access for hunting and camping, and a way to fight fires and rescue people like Lauer.
"The real thing behind this debate is that there are people who don't want trees cut on the national forests," says W. Henson Moore, president of the American Forest and Paper Association, a trade group based in Washington, D.C. "And if you can't build roads to get to the trees, you can't efficiently cut the trees."
Most environmental groups say some strictly regulated logging (but not clear-cutting) is OK in national forests. This is in line with the "multiple use" policy established by law. More radical groups - including the Sierra Club - want to silence all chain saws on federal land.
The House of Representatives recently voted to cut in half the Forest Service's road-building budget. In doing so, lawmakers rejected, by just a one-vote margin, eliminating all federal funding for such road construction. The issue is expected to come up in the Senate as early as this week.
There is not much argument over the extent of roads cut through national forests around the country - more than 350,000 miles, or several times the entire US interstate system.
"Once upon a time when roads were built on the national forest, and on private forest lands for that matter,... there was not sufficient concern given to be sure that these roads didn't create erosion," says Mr. Moore of the timber industry lobbying organization. But, he argues, "The [road-building] technology has been perfected to where that really isn't a problem anymore."
The Forest Service has been more sensitive to the environmental impact of road-building in recent years and has made considerable effort to landscape old, unused logging roads back to a more-natural state.
Michael Dombeck, a fisheries biologist who took over as chief of the Forest Service in January, emphasizes environmental protection when he talks about agency goals. While he stands "firmly behind a viable timber industry," Dr. Dombeck told a gathering of regional foresters this spring, "The health of the land must be our overriding priority."
Environmentalists are cheered by Dombeck's rhetoric but note that the Forest Service continues to offer some timber sales in roadless areas.
"We're concerned about the pace of reform and also about the perverse budget incentives," says Steve Holmer of the Western Ancient Forest Campaign, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C.
Studies by environmental groups and the federal General Accounting Office conclude that most national forests are money-losing propositions - that more is spent administering logging operations than is gained in revenue from timber companies. Activists and budget hawks (including some Republicans in Congress) call it a "corporate subsidy."
But when the bottom line is calculated, there are complicating factors such as who pays for logging roads and whether to include timber-revenue payments made to local communities for schools and other services.
An analysis by the Price Waterhouse accounting firm (commissioned by the American Forest and Paper Association) concludes that "the forest roads program does not contain a subsidy for timber purchasers and provides an efficient and effective mechanism for financing road construction and reconstruction."
It's these kinds of questions that politicians will debate as they determine the future of national forests. Meanwhile, many folks in the West continue to count on logging roads as a way into public playgrounds.
"I'm not going to stop going out there, that's for sure, " says Lauer, whose friends have joshingly offered to buy him a satellite-tracking device so he won't be led astray by another elk.