The Schwarzenegger administration signaled its support Tuesday for a plan to drop Clinton-era protections that barred road-building and other development on nearly a third of the country's national forest land, including more than 4 million acres in California.
The rollback, proposed by the Bush administration last summer, would repeal the most ambitious conservation move of Clinton's presidency -- a rule that blocked commercial timber cutting and road construction on 58.5 million acres of national forest holdings.
In its place, the Bush proposal would create a system that relies heavily on individual states to decide whether the forest lands should be opened to development or remain roadless.
In a letter to the Bush administration that was released Tuesday, state Resources Secretary Mike Chrisman said California welcomed the chance for greater state involvement in federal forest management. Nonetheless, he said, the state did not plan to identify areas for protection or development.
Instead, he said, California preferred to work with the U.S. Forest Service as it updates management plans for roadless areas.
Forest Service officials say most of the state's roadless acreage is of little commercial value and the agency has no immediate plans to build roads on it, including a remote area of the Los Padres National Forest in Southern California that has potential for gas and oil development.
Still, of the 4.1 million roadless acres in California, slightly more than half would be open to road-building under forest plans that predate the Clinton policy, according to Matt Mathes, regional Forest Service spokesman.
In backing the Bush rollback of the Clinton protections, the Schwarzenegger administration fell in line with other Republican governors in the West, where most of the roadless acreage is located and where logging and mining advocates condemned the Clinton rule as an underhanded way of creating more wilderness.
"Our hope is that by relying on local communities, we'll be able to identify what areas truly deserve roadless protection and have that determination made in part by the people who work and play close to those areas," said Todd O'Hair, natural resources policy advisor for outgoing Montana Gov. Judy Martz, who supports the Bush proposal.
A number of Democratic governors, on the other hand, strongly criticized the Bush plan, saying it would open pristine lands to environmentally harmful development and give states undue power in managing federal wild lands.
"We believe it is the responsibility of the federal government, not the states, to steward public lands," nine Democratic governors wrote last week to outgoing Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, who oversees the Forest Service. "These areas could be changed forever -- and their roadless qualities permanently lost -- by the decision at any point in time to allow road-building," added the governors, who included Bill Richardson of New Mexico, Gary Locke of Washington and Janet Napolitano of Arizona.
In September, California's Democratic Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer also faulted the Bush proposal, arguing that it amounted to an arbitrary revocation of the Clinton policy as well as an abdication of federal responsibilities.
Though he is aligning himself with Bush on the roadless proposal, Schwarzenegger has exhibited an independent streak on other environmental issues. For instance, he endorsed a plan to cut California auto emissions that contribute to global warming, and he has urged the federal government to buy out oil leases off the coast of California.
Under the Bush proposal, governors would be able to petition the U.S. Agriculture secretary to either keep the remote forest land in their states off-limits to industrial development or open it up to road construction, logging and mining. The secretary could either accept or reject the petitions.
In his letter Monday to Veneman, Chrisman said California would not file a petition. Under the Bush proposal, that means California's roadless acreage would be managed according to the individual forest plans that governed the areas prior to the Clinton decree.
"There's very little of this land on which roads can be built," said Sandy Cooney, deputy secretary of communications for the state Resources Agency. "Going to the old plans is immaterial."
Management plans for more than half of California's 18 national forests will be revised in the next decade, and those updates are the best means to deal with the future of roadless areas, state Resources Agency officials said.
"We expect to work with them to develop their plans," Cooney said, adding that various points needed to be addressed in the plan revisions: Some maps of roadless areas are inaccurate, some unofficial Native American roads in the eastern Sierra need to be recognized and road-building curbs should not hinder wildfire fighting efforts.