WASHINGTON — The Obama administration waded into a nearly decadelong debate over roadless areas in national forests Thursday, announcing what amounts to a timeout from most new logging and development in pristine areas across the West.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack issued the yearlong order, which shifts decisions about development in roadless areas away from U.S. Forest Service officials and requires that he approve all new projects. It effectively blocks planned timber sales in Tongass National Forest in Alaska.
Vilsack's order can be extended for a second year, which he said would "provide consistency and clarity that will help protect our national forests until a long-term roadless policy reflecting President Obama's commitment is developed."
As a candidate, Obama voiced support for protecting roadless areas in national forests.
Agriculture Department officials cast the order as a procedural timeout and said they expected Vilsack to approve some projects that meet the administration's standards for responsible forest practices. They noted that the move exempted national forests in Idaho, which has developed its own plan to manage roadless areas.
The Roadless Area Conservation Rule -- which President Clinton issued shortly before leaving office in 2001 -- had protected nearly 60 million acres of national forest land from logging and other development, largely in Western states. It touched off a protracted court battle that pitted conservation groups against the timber industry and several state governments.
The result was a pair of decisions from different federal courts. One upheld the Clinton rule. The other struck it down. Both decisions are being appealed and could wind up before the Supreme Court.
The George W. Bush administration let the Clinton rule stand but undercut it by exempting large areas from protections, including parts of the Tongass. It also allowed states to petition to set their own development rules.
Environmental groups praised Vilsack's order, calling it needed and welcome.
"Roadless areas are important as the last remaining pristine areas in America," said Trip Van Noppen, president of the environmental group Earthjustice, "and they are a great bulwark in how we will protect our environment in an era of climate change."
The move also drew cheers from environmental advocates on Capitol Hill.
Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, called it "proof positive that the new administration is serious about turning the page on the legacy of the Bush administration, which was bent on chopping away at the health and future of America's forests."
About 120 House members wrote Vilsack in March to request that he take control of decisions about roadless areas, including Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) and Rep. Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.), who Thursday vowed to continue congressional efforts to reinstate the complete Clinton-issued roadless rule.
But some Republicans questioned Vilsack's motives.
"It's unclear exactly what the policy implications of this decision will be," said Emily Lawrimore, a spokeswoman for Republicans on the Natural Resources Committee. "However, we do have concerns that they are changing a decades-long process and transferring decision-making power from scientists and career employees to political officials."
Timber industry representatives took a more optimistic approach.
"It's a responsible action on [Vilsack's] part that says the buck stops here on any projects in the roadless areas," said Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, an Oregon-based group. "It really doesn't present an edict."