For decades, politicians, environmentalists, and commercial interests have wrangled over what to do with the millions of acres of national forest land that remains pristine. Leave it that way? Bulldoze in roads to provide access for loggers, miners, and energy developers?
This week, the Bush administration signaled its intent to allow more roads to be built for resource extraction and other commercial development in national forest roadless areas. The decision overturns a Clinton-era rule preventing road-building on such federally managed land.
While these places may be pristine habitat for grizzly bears, mountain lions, and the occasional backpacker or hunter, they are not wilderness. Wilderness - which is strictly off-limits to any roads, development, or motor vehicles - is created by acts of Congress. For this reason, national forest roadless areas may have the potential to be designated as wilderness but they are much more open to the political inclinations of a particular administration or congressional majority.
The process of managing roadless parts of national forests began during the Carter administration with a complex inventory of such lands. While 39 states have some roadless national forest areas, 97 percent of the total - 57 million acres - is concentrated in 12 western states.
During the last two years of the Clinton administration, federal agencies sought public input. After 600 public meetings and more than 2 million comments overwhelmingly favoring protection from development, the White House, in the last month before President Bush took over, issued a new regulation stating that those lands should remain free of logging, mining, and drilling.
The Bush administration has wanted to open up some of those lands. And it's been urged in that direction by a blizzard of lawsuits - nine separate lawsuits in seven states involving a dozen federal judges - from industries, as well as some Western governors, including Dirk Kempthorne (R) of Idaho, who want more control of and access to national forests. Two federal courts have blocked the Clinton rule, but one of those was overturned by a US Court of Appeals.
The essence of the Bush proposal on roadless forests - announced Monday by Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman - is that the Clinton rule would be nullified. It would be replaced by a plan that would leave bulldozing up to the Forest Service, with input from governors.
Western governors have long rankled at federal control of land within their borders. So the Bush proposal for roadless national forests appeals to many governors, particularly those relying on timber and minerals for jobs and state income.
"Good stewardship of our public lands must begin with a state partnership because the good people we represent depend on the careful balancing of access, use and preservation of our national forests," says Governor Kempthorne.
But there is a "red state, blue state" political aspect to the issue as well. "This is a very bad decision for the environment," says Gov. Bill Richardson (D) of New Mexico, Energy Secretary in the Clinton administration. "The Forest Service is basically walking away from roadless protection. It's an abdication of federal responsibility."
Unlike many public lands issues, this one unites environmentalists with hunters.
"It's about open space and clean water and providing hunting and fishing opportunities as more and more land is posted 'no trespassing'," says Chris Wood, vice president of the conservation group Trout Unlimited. "This is an issue that certain people care very, very deeply about."
Bush officials say they're looking for a better balance to environmental protection and development, for more local and state input on such issues, and for a way to end the court battles.
"The prospect of endless lawsuits represents neither progress nor certainty for communities," says Secretary Veneman, whose agency oversees the US Forest Service. "We can do better."
Others see it as a potential opening for Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry.
"The environment may come behind terrorism and the economy in the priorities of voters," says Phil Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust. "But even the Bush administration knows very well that in key battleground states and with key swing voters like suburbanites and women the environment ranks very close to the top of the list of concerns."