On the shoulder of Southern California, the nation's capital of freeway sprawl, there is still country virtually as roadless, raw and unpeopled as ever.
More than half a million acres are in the Los Padres National Forest, where the terrain, steep and folded like a compressed accordion, is home to the endangered California condor, provides drinking water for Santa Barbara and acts as a primitive playground for people who jam the urban valleys down the coast.
On the eastern edge of the state in the Inyo National Forest, the nation's highest desert mountain range looms -- an empty place of ancient bristlecone pines, bighorn sheep and windy solitude. To the north, in the Tahoe National Forest, old-growth sugar pines and incense cedars tower in backcountry that has never heard the buzz of a chain saw or the roar of an SUV.
Those places are among 58.5 million acres of national forest protected under a Clinton administration rule that banned road building and commercial logging. Almost all the wild lands are in Alaska or 11 other Western states, including 4.4 million acres in California.
The most sweeping conservation move of the Clinton presidency, the bans were both applauded and attacked for placing 31% of the national forest system off limits to timber cutting and to the creation of new roads.
Two weeks ago the Bush administration made its own move -- proposing to drop the Clinton prohibitions and instead give state governors a considerable say in whether the areas are protected.
The proposal is the latest in a series of administration actions that are reshaping management of the West's vast public lands, rolling back not only Clinton-era conservation policies but some that date from the Ford and Reagan years.
Underlying the push for reversal is a battle that has raged for decades over the purpose of the 192 million acres of national forest. Are the forests for logging, mining and energy production? Recreation? Protection of water and wildlife? The laws governing the forests say they should be used for all those purposes, leaving the task of finding a balance to the U.S. Forest Service and federal officials.
But priorities shift from administration to administration, perhaps never so dramatically as in the last dozen years.
When Clinton's roadless edict was issued in January 2001, Mike Dombeck, then chief of the Forest Service, called protecting some of the nation's last wild and unfragmented territory an intrinsically American thing to do. "Europe has its great castles and works of art," he said. "Africa has its ancient pyramids and cultures. Here in America, we have our wild places."
The language of the rule offered more pragmatic justifications. Roadless acreage is a source of clean drinking water for millions of people and functions as a biological stronghold for plants and wildlife. The forest system is already crisscrossed by 386,000 miles of road the government can't afford to maintain.
But in some quarters the roadless rule looked like a sneaky way to circumvent Congress and create what amounted to new wilderness.
By placing so much of the national forests out of bounds to industrial activity, "the roadless rule changed the mission of the Forest Service," contended Michael Klein, a spokesman for the American Forest & Paper Assn., which filed one of nine lawsuits challenging the bans on road building and timber cutting.
"If you want to change the national forest system to the national park system, let's have a debate about it," Klein added. "Instead it was tied up in this rhetoric, 'it's the last pristine wilderness.' And it's not true."
At a recent Boise, Idaho, news conference, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced a proposed rule that would revoke the roadless protections. In their place, state governors would have 18 months to petition her office to maintain road and timber cutting prohibitions -- or open the holdings to more development. The final decision would be up to Veneman.
If a governor doesn't file a petition, the roadless land in that state would be managed according to individual national forest plans that governed the areas prior to the Clinton decree. According to the Forest Service, those plans would allow activities involving road construction on about 34 million of the 58.5 million acres.
In California, the Forest Service says it has no intention of a road-building spree. "It would take a very compelling reason under any future scenario for us to undertake any large-scale road building in inventoried roadless areas," regional spokesman Matt Mathes said.
"That may be [its policy] this month or this week," retorted Jay Watson of the Wilderness Society. "But I've been here 20 years with the Wilderness Society and I've seen any number of roadless areas proposed for logging, for brand new ski areas. We've got 11 roadless areas on the Los Padres under study for oil and gas."