The national forests stretching up and down the Cascade and coastal mountain ranges of Oregon are crisscrossed with thousands of miles of dirt roads. They lead to playgrounds and workplaces for thousands of people here, from loggers in spiked boots wielding chain saws to hikers in polar fleece hefting backpacks.
They're also the scene of a political wildfire these days, as the Bush administration is finding out.
The degree to which such forests are protected - or opened up to more logging, mining, and motorized recreation - has put the White House squarely between two powerful interest groups: environmentalists and those who'd like to generate more profit and create more jobs by extracting natural resources. And it comes at a time when most Americans have doubts about President Bush's commitment to environmental protection.
The country's national forests spread across 192 million acres in 39 states. Most of that wooded and rocky landscape is located in the northern Rockies, the Pacific Northwest, and Alaska. But these are "national" forests, meaning Americans from the industrial cities of New Jersey to the beaches of Hawaii have a legitimate interest in how they are used or preserved.
Under the Clinton administration, the US Forest Service spent two years conducting 600 public meetings and hearing from 1.6 million individuals before ruling that nearly 60 million acres of national forest land should be left roadless to protect wildlife habitat.
Despite the lengthy rule-making process, the Bush White House saw this as one of several last-minute environmental-protection efforts by Clinton, and officials delayed implementing the new rules. Meanwhile, several Western states, Indian tribes, and the Boise Cascade timber company sued to halt the rules.
Caught between its inclination to resist new Washington mandates on the environment and its poor environmental image (based on its pronouncements about global warming, arsenic in water, and oil drilling in an Alaskan wildlife refuge), the administration has made a Solomonic decision that leaves both sides nervous and disgruntled. It will not try to kill the new rules outright, but will craft amendments that would give local officials and economic interests more say in restricting roadbuilding on a forest-by-forest basis.
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, who overseas national forest policy, says the administration is looking for "a common-sense approach to roadless protection - one that addresses legitimate concerns in a fair and reasonable way."
But environmentalists fear this means a return to the days when federal land managers, often under pressure from local economic and political interests, put logging, mining, and ranching ahead of ecological concerns. Such concerns led to the "timber wars" of the 1980s and '90s, when courts ruled that too much logging had threatened some endangered species - the northern spotted owl being the most notorious.
"It's asking a lot of forest supervisors and district rangers to stand up and say 'no' to the likes of Boise Cascade," says Doug Honnold, a lawyer with the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund in Bozeman, Mont.
Those opposed to new restrictions on national forest roadbuilding say access is necessary to provide the timber and minerals the nation needs, recreation to the vast majority of Americans who don't want to tote a 50-pound pack into the wilds, plus a way for firefighters to get at the blazes that have devastated thousands of acres in recent years.
But critics say Uncle Sam's existing forest road system (386,000 miles, or 15 times around the earth) can barely be maintained as it is. There's an $8.4 billion backlog in maintenance on Forest Service roads.
Among their other arguments: Habitat for grizzly bears and other endangered wildlife is fragmented; washed-out roads cause landslides that have destroyed property and killed people; such roads provide access to wildlife poachers; and the roads actually cause more fires by allowing careless smokers, campers, and spark-emitting motor vehicles into the woods.
It's not just green activists involved. Some two dozen congressional Republicans have petitioned the administration not to change the new rules. And a recent survey of 1,000 likely voters by the Mellman Group showed two-thirds (including 58 percent of Republicans surveyed) backing the roadbuilding restrictions.
The administration's split-the-difference stance draws criticism from both sides. "The roadless rule, as it was promulgated by the Clinton administration, is patently illegal," says Idaho Attorney General Al Lance. "No amount of window dressing will change that fact."
Mike Francis of the Washington-based Wilderness Society calls it "sugar coating," which would result in "forest planning run by the timber industry and subsidized by the American public." For years, critics have charged that the Forest Service loses more money than it earns from timber sales.
But for now, the main question is the degree to which local interests and politicians can be trusted to do the right thing by millions of acres of forestland that belong to all Americans. While the battle may continue, both sides at least are happy with the professional forester recently appointed chief of the US Forest Service.
"Local input doesn't drive everything," says Dale Bosworth, a 35-year veteran of the agency who helped write the controversial new roadless rule. "In the end, what we're trying to do is preserve roadless values."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor