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Where Roads Shouldn't Be

June 15, 2004

Under President Clinton, the government banned road-building in 60 million acres of pristine national forest. Last year, President Bush reversed that ruling for more than half of the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. Members of Congress have an opportunity this week to overrule Bush and save more than 9 million acres of rain forest from bulldozers. At the same time, they can send a message to the administration to leave priceless wilderness areas (including 2.5 million acres of roadless national forest in California) alone.

Bush wants to allow loggers to build roads on these 9 million acres so they can get at just 300,000 acres of old-growth trees. On top of that, other misguided federal policies would subsidize the road work at a cost of millions; in 2002, $13 million in federal funds was spent on road-building in the Tongass.

And with the departure of the loggers' trucks, the decaying roads would leave a legacy of erosion and other environmental damage that the government must either pay to repair or (more likely) leave as a mess, as is the case in too many areas.

Why? Administration officials tout the economic benefit to Alaska of building roads and harvesting timber in the national forests. Alaska's governor and other state politicians pushed hard for Bush's reversal of the Clinton roadless policy. The state has suffered badly from a timber industry slump caused mainly by low-cost competition from Russia and China.

It is always an interesting test of a Republican administration: whether it sees its job as protecting free-market competition or protecting favored businesses from free-market competition. In this case, it is a test the Bush administration flunks.

And the administration also flunks on a basic understanding of federalism -- another value that Republican administrations hold high, at least rhetorically. Of course local politicians care more about short-term economics than long-term wilderness preservation. That is why the national forests are national. They belong to all of us, and most of us (according to every poll) want the bulldozers to stay out.

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