Belching factories, rivers thick with waste, majestic eagles, cunning wolves - the symbols of environmental controversy typically inspire disgust or awe. But the biggest environmental fight this political season involves nothing grander than a dirt road.
More than 380,000 miles of such roads criss-cross federal forests around the country - enough to get to the moon and halfway back. They were created to provide access to loggers, firefighters, hunters, and hikers. Seen from the air, they spiderweb their way toward controversial clear-cuts supplying the nation with lumber and paper.
But they also have carved up habitat for such endangered species as grizzly bears and lynx, and in many areas they have been the prime cause of erosion that kills fish and destroys property.
The Clinton administration wants to put an end to most national forest road-building, and the proposal has set off a strident debate that stretches from Florida to the Puget Sound, from Maine to southern California.
It's also involved Al Gore and George W. Bush in their contest for the White House.
The issue concerns not only the roads themselves, but questions of how best to preserve forest health, which government entity should control the 192 million acres of federal forests, and the economic future of thousands of rural communities. How it's resolved could signal the future of forest land around the country.
The Clinton proposal would ban new roads across 43 million acres of US territory. Most of that is in the West, but portions of forests in other regions would remain roadless, such as 179,000 acres in West Virginia.
Critics say the proposal is bad environmentally and economically. Preventing roads and therefore logging allows the buildup of forest fuels that can lead to catastrophic fires, they say, even though the record shows that roaded areas subject to human intrusion are more likely to burn.
Opponents of the plan also note that the amount of timber harvested from national forests has declined 72 percent since 1989 - about the time the northern spotted owl entered the political fray as the symbol of a new land ethic, specifically, the attempt to save endangered species by preserving forest habitat.
The plan to limit forest road-building "sounds the death knell for the health of our national forests and signals an attack on rural America," says Henson Moore, president of the American Forest & Paper Association.
Environmentalists are generally pleased that national forests are to receive greater protections, but many are concerned about exceptions written into the proposal. A decision on protecting 8.5 million acres of the Tongass National Forest in Alaska (the biggest national forest in the United States) has been deferred until 2004, and the plan leaves the decision on whether or not to build roads in roadless areas of less than 5,000 acres to local Forest Service officials.
"The current plan contains loopholes big enough to drive a logging truck through," says Gene Karpinski, executive director of the US Public Interest Research Group.
Some congressional critics charge that the Clinton administration drafted the proposal in cahoots with such environmental groups as the Sierra Club.
"The Forest Service developed this rule in meetings with a small, insular group that represented only one, limited interest," says Sen. Michael Enzi (R) of Wyoming. "The meetings were conducted behind closed doors and without any public notice."
Forest Service and White House officials deny the charge, and they point to how much the public has been involved since the plan was announced last October.
Some 400 public meetings have been held around the country, and more than half a million comments have been received - most of them in support of the proposal to curb forest road-building.
Some of this support for the administration's plan no doubt was generated by environmental groups, but recent polls indicate widespread public support for protecting the nation's forests.
American Viewpoint, a Republican polling organization, found that 76 percent of those surveyed support the roadless areas protection plan - including 62 percent of registered Republicans and 65 percent of those who identify themselves as "conservatives." This relates not only to environmental considerations but to the millions of dollars a year Uncle Sam loses in below-cost timber sales.
"With thousands of miles of road in existence and a multibillion dollar backlog of road maintenance [$8 billion, according to the Forest Service], what sense does it make to build more roads?" asks Gloria Flora, until recently supervisor of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest in Nevada. "Until we can maintain necessary roads and close unneeded roads which fragment habitat and dump sediment into streams, we shouldn't be building more."
Governor Bush would scrap President Clinton's roadless forest-protection plan. Vice President Gore says he would extend the plan to include the Tongass National Forest in Alaska.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society