Playing the biggest environmental trump card of his tenure, President Clinton is poised to preserve vast tracts of national forest land, likely setting much of it aside from logging, mining, and even motoring vacationers.
The initiative, which would at least double the US forest acreage off limits to all but wildlife and hikers, may help lift Mr. Clinton to the status of a "conservation president" cast in the mold of Teddy Roosevelt.
But the move is also infuriating a host of powerful and not-so-powerful interests - from the Republican-led Congress to timber companies to tiny Western communities that rely on logging or mining for survival. They argue that Clinton's action, far from benefiting the forests, will harm the ecosystem by failure to control diseased trees and fires.
Sweeping aside such warnings and sidestepping Congress, the president is winning plaudits from environmentalists - and, possibly, gaining a potent issue for his vice president, Al Gore, in the 2000 presidential campaign.
Some supporters go so far as to suggest that this initiative, combined with the administration's earlier land-preservation efforts, represents a significant Clinton legacy of conservation.
"If ... they move forward and protect what remains [of the national forests], Clinton climbs up on the pedestal with Teddy Roosevelt" as one of the nation's great conservation presidents, says Ken Rait, director of the Heritage Forests Campaign. "This is a litmus test for Clinton."
Even so, he would occupy a lower pedestal than that held by buckskin-clad "T.R.," who assigned 120 million acres to national forests and added five national parks to US recreation lands. The president who comes closest to Roosevelt's legacy is probably Jimmy Carter, who protected 103 million acres in Alaska.
For his part, Clinton is asking the US Forest Service to find a way to protect at least 40 million acres of pristine national forest - a collective area roughly the size of Virginia and West Virginia. That would lock up at least 40 percent of America's national forest land, compared with the 18 percent currently off limits to road-building and development.
Those who back Clinton's plan say roadless areas are needed to protect species, such as salmon and the grizzly, and to preserve clean water and natural beauty. The national forests, they warn, are taxed by a ballooning number of recreation enthusiasts - 860 million visitors in 1996, and an expected 1.2 billion in 2040.
Meanwhile, half of the national forest system contains 380,000 miles of roads already - more than eight times the length of roads in the US interstate highway system. "We don't have very many areas left as roadless," says Andy Stahl, director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics in Eugene, Ore. "They are small pockets in a sea of development."
The timber industry, along with US lawmakers from Western states, see it differently. The more that US lands are walled off, they say, the more American lumber companies must look abroad for timber - and in countries where logging codes are substandard.
Small logging operations, the primary actors in the national forests, will be hurt the most, says Michael Klein of the American Forest and Paper Association.
And the industry, too, argues on behalf of the environment. Logging helps control the spread of insects and disease, says Mr. Klein, as well as reduce the risk of fire devastation. "It's a forest health issue," he says.
Klein and some lawmakers are furious that the president appears to be doing an end run around Congress, by stopping short of seeking official "wilderness" status for the newly protected acres. Instead, he's asking the Forest Service to regulate the land in a way that employs most of the same development bans that apply to wilderness areas.
"They don't have the votes in Congress, so they're doing this via regulation," says Klein. Many expect the president's plans to be challenged in the courts.
Opinion polls show broad support for protecting more land. A June poll for the Heritage Forests Campaign showed 70 percent of Democrats, 64 percent of Independents, and 55 percent of Republicans favor protecting all roadless areas in national forests. A recent Zogby International poll supports these findings.
With today's announcement, the president could also help Mr. Gore in his primary campaign against Bill Bradley.
"At its root, this tree issue is about politics. We have a window of opportunity, and we're using [Bill] Bradley's campaign for a hook to get the White House to pay attention to our issue," says Mr. Stahl of the Forest Service employees group.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society