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Plan to Curb Forest Roads Provokes Debate

Wilderness: Environmentalists say Clinton moratorium isn't strong enough. Foes contend public and timber companies will lose access.


DIXIE, Idaho — To gaze upon Big Mallard Creek is to see something you could spend a lifetime looking for: a rolling timber carpet in every direction. No railroad tracks. No roads. Just Ponderosa pine and lodgepole and grand fir, with thin veins of snow.

This is the West that Charles Pezeshki imagined as a boy in Ohio, when he would stare at a six-pack of beer brewed in the land of sky-blue water. And here at Big Mallard Creek, he found it: 5 million acres stretched across the belly of Idaho and western Montana, an unbroken parade of ridges and rivers and thick forests, the biggest expanse of roadless wilderness anywhere in the Lower 48.

"Let me tell you, the end of the frontier isn't an idea anymore. The end of the frontier is about 100 miles away from here," Pezeshki said recently while sitting in the offices of the Cove-Mallard Coalition in Moscow, Idaho. "What is happening is that people are losing their memory of what wild places really are. We're basically at the bottom of the ninth, and we're the last guys at bat here."

Responding to such concerns, the Clinton administration on Jan. 22 proposed an 18-month moratorium on virtually all new roads and the decommissioning of some existing ones in large wilderness areas not covered by management plans, pending development of a long-term strategy.

The moratorium is subject to a 60- to 90-day public review, after which it can be put in place by the Forest Service without congressional approval.

While many environmentalists say the new policy doesn't go far enough, opponents say it will lock most Americans out of their national forests and make it more difficult for companies to cut timber on public lands. Commercial logging has been an economic lifeline for hundreds of small communities in the West.

The Idaho Conservation League predicts that the moratorium will halt 54 of 103 planned timber sales in roadless areas in that state, including up to six at the 76,000-acre Cove-Mallard wildlife corridor linking three major wilderness regions in central Idaho.

The Forest Service inventoried 9.4 million roadless acres in Idaho in the mid-1980s, but 1 million of those acres have since had roads built in the last decade, the conservation league said.

In the Northwest, environmental groups had hoped in vain that the roadless policy would reopen the issue of old-growth forests, centuries-old groves west of the Cascades considered environmental treasures, but which were designated for logging in the compromise that settled the late '80s wars over efforts to preserve habitat for the endangered spotted owl.

"It borders on gross negligence that our forests would be exempted from this policy when communities are clamoring for cleaner drinking water and our salmon populations are plummeting," said Ken Rait, conservation director of the Oregon Natural Resources Council.

Indeed, a number of conservationists complain that the federal government turned a deaf ear to demands years ago for an end to all road building. Now the government has caught up too late, they say--asserting that it is time not only to stop new roads but to halt all private logging in public forests.

"This roadless area policy at its best says that everything that's left in our national forest system under 1,000 acres is open to logging. It's a free-for-all," said Tim Hermach of the Native Forest Council in Eugene, Ore. (The policy actually protects only areas larger than 5,000 acres, but includes forests as small as 1,000 acres if they are next to a larger wilderness area.)

The timber industry warns that the moratorium will further restrict commercial access to the national forests at a time when logging towns throughout the West, faced with a mounting array of environmental regulations, struggle to keep mills open.

"There is no question that a lot of our Western forests are at risk to catastrophic wildfire, insect and disease outbreaks, and merely drawing a line around an area and saying 'This area has no roads, it must be . . . protected,' is ridiculous," said Stefany Bales of the Intermountain Forest Industry Assn., which is based in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

Republican lawmakers in the West have accused the administration of pressing ahead with the moratorium before considering the consequences.

"We are presented with a 'ready-fire-aim,' scattershot proposal that . . . undermines the ability of local forest managers and scientists to properly manage forests based upon local environmental conditions in cooperation with local communities," said Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

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