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A wrong turn

September 26, 2006

ROAD-BUILDING IN NATIONAL forests is a double whammy for taxpayers. Not only do they have to pay the cost of the actual roads, which are used mostly by the timber and mining industries, but taxpayers must also bear the less quantifiable cost of the environmental damage to the forests they own.

That's why decisions to build new roads in pristine forests should be made only after careful study and deliberation. That was the policy adopted in the Clinton administration, which, after three years of study and public input, in 2001 banned road-building in 58 million acres of forest. But the Bush administration, in a decision marked by neither study nor deliberation, suspended the so-called roadless rule later that year.

The mad dash to open the forests to more roads -- and, oddly, to give states more control over national forests -- was what undid the Bush administration's plans. A federal judge ruled last week that the administration had failed to do the environmental studies required under the Endangered Species and National Environmental Policy acts before disregarding the roadless rule in the Lower 48 states.

Several states, including California, have said they want their roadless areas to remain that way. But Idaho, which at 9.3 million acres has by far the single biggest share of roadless forest, last week proposed protecting only about one-third of that land. Regardless of any merits of Idaho's plan, no single state should have so much say over what happens to about 6 million acres of forest that belongs to all U.S. taxpayers.

Just as President Clinton had the power to institute the roadless policy, President Bush has the authority to change it -- even to change it for the worse. But he does not have the right to change it without the analysis required by federal law.

The administration has not decided whether to appeal. It would be better off dropping the idea. If the administration still thinks its proposal has merit, it shouldn't mind subjecting it to the same environmental scrutiny all such plans receive.

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