With the clock ticking down on his presidency, Bill Clinton ordered that nearly one-third of America's national forests be made off limits to logging, mining, and road-building.
To some, the action - which covers an area the size of Oregon - is historic, signaling an official end to destructive policies that began more than 150 years ago with the opening of the Western frontier. To others, the proposal is unreasonable, skirts the authority of Congress, and could put thousands of Westerners out of a job.
It's being called one of the most sweeping environmental plans of the past 100 years, potentially placing Mr. Clinton in the company of conservation president Theodore Roosevelt. Coming just two months before the administration is scheduled to leave office, it also represents one of the president's final major opportunities to leave a lasting mark.
"In terms of securing the nation's wild heritage for future generations, this is almost as momentous as when the forest system was created a century ago," says Chris Wood, a senior Forest Service adviser in Washington.
The 58.5 million-acre roadless-protection plan is even bigger and farther reaching than the original proposal unveiled in May. It reduces the total volume of trees that can be cut, essentially closing the door on any aspirations to renew the logging campaigns of old. And significantly, it extends preservation to millions of acres in Alaska's Tongass National Forest, which has been a key battleground for logging-rights for more than 20 years.
Yet it also appeases some critics by allowing for management - including the thinning of dense tree stands - to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire.
That, however, isn't nearly enough for some conservative Western lawmakers, who are infuriated by the plan - and the administration's recent unilateral designation of new national monuments.
The president's adversaries warn that these actions could incite counter-maneuvers in Congress - even attempts by George W. Bush to undo the roadless plan, should the governor win the White House.
"I don't think ... that unilateral administrative actions create a lasting legacy, particularly when there is good reason to overturn them," says Mark Rey, a senior staffer for Sen. Larry Craig (R) of Idaho.
While he says protecting wildlife is good, it's what happens to people who make their living in the forest that worries him. That's especially true in the Tongass, the nation's largest temperate rainforest.
"I don't think [the Clinton administration] cares how many jobs are lost," says Mr. Rey, who works with the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "The economic impacts will be much greater than it anticipates."
According to the Clinton administration's analysis, barring logging would cost no more than 800 jobs. The Forest Service also points to a $15 million program, designed to help the workforce in affected communities transition into new jobs. "We will give some forests like the Tongass a four-year transition period so that communities have a period to adjust," Mr. Wood says.
Moreover, the administration says, Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of protecting dwindling wilderness.
"Never before have the American people so actively participated in helping to decide how their public lands should be managed," says Dan Glickman, secretary of the Department of Agriculture, noting that some 1.5 million comments were received.
This outpouring of citizen interest, environmentalists say, is evidence of a mandate for conservation. Public-opinion surveys carried out by Democratic and Republican pollsters have shown broad support for environmental protection.
"Those who oppose this plan are not for protecting the land. They are for business as usual," says Michael Francis of The Wilderness Society. Even in Idaho, Senator Craig's home state, he says, a majority of citizens support the hands-off approach to roadless lands.
In recent years, timber production from national forests has fallen off dramatically, from 12 billion board-feet a year in the 1980s to 3 billion board-feet a year now.
Forest Service Chief Dombeck says a primary impetus for banning new logging-related road construction is that the agency cannot afford to maintain the network. Repair costs would exceed $8 billion, he says.
But he has also tried to shift his agency away from an emphasis on logging and toward preservation. Not considered by critics, officials say, is the value of clean water supplies and safe wildlife populations. Hundreds of towns and small cities derive their drinking water from headwater streams originating in national forests not penetrated by roads. And poorly designed roads can cause soil sedimentation in streams that kill sensitive fish.
Says Steve Moyer of Trout Unlimited: "Almost all of our native trout and salmon populations are in trouble, and in nearly every case, the last best remaining habitat for these species is found inside or adjacent to these forested roadless areas."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society