WASHINGTON — In a ruling long sought by environmental groups, the Clinton administration today will announce a ban on construction of new roads and new commercial logging activities in nearly 60 million acres of roadless terrain in the national forests.
The rule essentially will prevent any major expansion of logging in the vast national forest system. The protected acreage, much of it in the West, is fully a third of all the land in the national forests and more than the size of all the national parks combined.
Roads now in the national forests can be maintained and current timber sites will continue to be worked to meet the demand of the construction industry.
The rule is the latest in a flurry of orders and regulations by the Clinton administration in its waning days that are intended to bolster his legacy as a strong protector of the environment. The president also is seeking to make it difficult for the incoming Bush administration to overturn his environmental policies.
In California, there are 4.4 million roadless acres in the state's 21 national forests, including the Angeles, Los Padres and San Bernardino forests in Southern California and in Humboldt, Tahoe, Mendocino, Shasta-Trinity, Six Rivers and Klamath forests in the north.
The biggest single region to be protected is acreage in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, the site of vast concentrations of timber.
The rule cannot be easily reversed by the Bush administration because it was adopted according to the formal procedures protected under federal law. The president first directed the Forest Service in 1999 to develop a rule to protect large intact areas in the forests without roads. After research and discussion, there was a proposed rule, then public comments, then consideration within the government and now the issuance of the final rule.
This system applies to all rule-making by the government. A new administration or agency director cannot arbitrarily cancel a rule. Instead, it could only be altered by a complete new rule-making procedure, which itself could take a year or more. The only challenges would be through court action, or to try to persuade Congress to pass legislation overturning the rule.
California environmental groups were delighted with the decision.
"This is a very significant shift in policy to protect the last remaining wild areas in the forest," said Jay Watson, the Wilderness Society's regional director for California and Nevada. "It's really a milestone in the history of the national forest system."
Watson said that the ruling would have long-term ecological and economic benefits, countering claims by logging interests that it would hurt the state's economy.
"The economies of many places in the West have diversified far beyond logging and mining, for instance, and in part it is the natural landscape that allows communities to attract new businesses and residents," Watson said. "In that sense, wild forests are more valuable left standing tall than cut down."
But logging industry representatives were strongly critical, saying that the decision, which was expected, opens the national forests to the risk of catastrophic fire and has the long-term potential to harm the industry as well.
By restricting access by firefighting equipment, "we are relegating these lands to blackened forest," said Phil Aune, vice president for public resources of the California Forestry Assn., a trade group.
"Just as sure as we're talking here, those areas are going to burn up and we can't, without active management, reduce the seriousness of those fires," he said.
Aune said that lumber mills were not likely to close because of the decision, saying that very few timber sales are planned over the next five years anyway. But he said that the long-term loss of the new roadless areas to logging would be significant, amounting to a potential harvest of 20 million board-feet of lumber each year.
The ban will "restore balance to the national forests," which have faced an expansion of logging, a White House official said Thursday.
The territory will have "full public access," the official said. The land will "be there for people to hike and camp and hunt and fish and enjoy the natural splendor," he said.
Roads and logging create runoff that pollutes the streams running through these lands, he said.
The original rule offered by the U.S. Forest Service would have exempted Tongass from the ban and would have allowed new road building there. But the final rule to be issued today encompasses Tongass, which is likely to be a major disappointment for the timber industry.
However, there will be a grandfather clause allowing some expansion of activities in the Tongass forest, to cover timber already sold or under contract, or lands already selected by the Forest Service to permit new logging.
Rosenblatt reported from Washington and Trounson from Los Angeles.