TWO THINGS ABOUT Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's push against new roads in untouched areas of California's national forests: It was an environmentally sound decision for a state that reveres its wilderness areas. And it was a decision the governor shouldn't have had to make in the first place.
The Bush administration, after initially vowing to barely tweak a Clinton-era ban on road building in almost 60 million acres of forest, instead ended up delegating too much authority to individual states. Roadless areas were potentially stripped of all protection, unless governors of individual states petitioned for protection of specific areas.
Schwarzenegger was essentially forced into asking for preservation of the 4.4 million acres of roadless areas in California. A few other governors have done the same, though some are expected to call for opening vast new stretches of old-growth forest to timber, gas and other industries.
What's important to keep in mind is that these are national -- not state -- forests. The U.S. Forest Service should be managing its lands, not outsourcing the job to state governors. Of course, federal officials should take local sensibilities into account in drawing up forest plans, but they're the ones who should be drawing up the plans, based on a consistent policy of managing the land for the national good.
To make things worse, the Bush administration seems confused about its new policy. It already has stripped protection and sold timber rights to an area of Oregon forest before Gov. Ted Kulongoski could formally ask to protect roadless areas there.
Some roadless areas might be suitable for development; President Clinton's sweeping road ban made for rigid policy. Still, it's the federal government's responsibility, not the states', to survey areas where more flexibility makes sense and to do the appropriate environmental reports before opening forest land to development. Not all states have the resources to carry out this expensive and complicated task, and individual states cannot assess how their portions of the federal forests fit into the nation's overall conservation policies.
California is among the states suing to halt the Bush policy, claiming that it fails to protect water quality and was put into effect without adequate environmental study. The best outcome for the nation's forests would be if the policy is struck down. But for now, acting under the realities of a poorly drawn policy, Schwarzenegger has taken the best practical step toward protecting forest backcountry.