Forest Service's Right Turn

America's national forests are an irreplaceable asset, and the Clinton administration is commendably moving toward protecting that asset for future generations.

Forest Service chief Michael Dombeck recently announced, in rapid succession, a moratorium on road building in 33 million acres of federal woodland and a halt to hardrock mining in the scenic Rocky Mountain Front area of Montana. These steps brought protests both from logging and mining interests, and some conservationists.

The former fear curbs on their activity. The latter want a ban on new roads in all untracked national forest land. The exclusion from Mr. Dombeck's moratorium of lands in California, the Northwest, and Alaska brought moans from environmentalists. Alaska's Tongass National Forest, the nation's largest, is a particular point of contention.

The Forest Service said protective management plans are already in place for that 16.7 million-acre tract. But other considerations were doubtless also in play. Alaska's long-serving and powerful congressional delegation is staunchly pro-economic development, and it has many allies on Capitol Hill. Logging remains a critical source of jobs in the mountainous West. Environmental absolutism will not wash politically.

What ought to prevail is a clear-eyed pragmatism that balances a number of national and local interests. Dombeck's priority is correct. He is determined to set a policy course that preserves a significant portion of Forest Service land for the general public's recreational and aesthetic enjoyment. That breaks with the old pattern of managing the land primarily for the extractive industries.

Critics have accurately portrayed past logging-road and mining-rights policies as largely a federal give-away to industry.

Dombeck should follow the 18-month moratorium with a plan that makes permanent a ban on roads in quickly vanishing old-growth stands of timber. Some new roads will probably be built in other areas, but a clear public need for access - not just industry demands - should dictate where and how many. It's time for the Forest Service to decisively turn a corner, parting ways with its train of logging trucks.

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