14 Feb 2008, 10:39pm
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Editorial: Clinton’s road to ruin

Fight over forest access is 10 years old

By Sean Paige, Orange County Register [here]

January saw the 10th anniversary of President Clinton’s roadless areas rule, but there was little reason to celebrate, since nothing but controversy, acrimony and litigation have come from it. It may as well have been called the “rudderless rule,” given the paralysis and policy confusion it caused – all at a time when the wildfire threat and a forest health crisis call out for more access to public lands, not less.

Environmentalists and a few elite sportsman groups hailed the rule and have fought hard to make it stick; they’re on the vanguard of an effort to turn most public lands into exclusive playgrounds or wilderness areas, unpolluted by the presence of most people and the pursuit of profit. But the rule was ill-conceived and terribly timed.

Ill-conceived because it marked a major change in how a third of our national forests would be managed, yet Congress and the states weren’t consulted (true to Mr. Clinton’s tendency to advance his environmental agenda through executive action); terribly timed because the wildfire threat and looming energy crunch argue for greater access to public lands, not more restrictions.

We in California know first-hand how serious the wildfire threat has become in the West, and those engaged in taking preventive measures or responding to the increasingly ferocious blowups sometimes depend on forest roads to do their work. Banning or closing roads on federal forest land could impede our ability to deal with the threat, and could someday exact a terrible toll in lost lives and property. The Clinton administration did nothing during its eight years to avert the looming crisis, then, at the 11th hour, attempted to impose access restrictions that would increase the difficulty of dealing with it. It boggles the mind.

This was never really about roads. It’s about restricting access. Clinton’s order was a designed to create de facto wilderness areas and to overturn multiple-use management on nearly 60 million acres of national forest – as one federal judge astutely observed when he threw the rule out. It was a late-in-the game political payoff to a key Democratic Party constituent group (green extremists) from which nothing but heartburn has come.

For a decade now the issue has ping-ponged through the courts, resulting in a cacophony of confusing and contradictory rulings that make coherent policymaking impossible. President George W. Bush eventually overturned the rule and handed off the issue to states – who should have had more say from the outset – hoping this would end the controversy. But Democrat governors of Western states, who should have welcomed the long-sought opportunity for a real partnership with Washington on public-lands decisions, snubbed Bush’s stab at federalism for partisan reasons. And this decision, too, has been challenged in court.

For 10 years paralysis has prevailed, in short, at a time when bold action was needed to address the wildfire threat and other forest health problems. And there’s still no resolution in sight.

We believe the public lands are vast and varied enough to accommodate all “stakeholder groups,” assuming these groups are willing to compromise and to share (which some evidently aren’t). We also believe multiple-use management, if applied in a sensible and science-based manner, can balance the needs of the economy and the environment. Sufficient safeguards exist for the protection of these lands without the need for vast new roadless areas.

If certain groups want more wilderness areas, where many recreational and extractive activities are restricted or banned, there’s a process for establishing them. If these groups want to end multiple-use management on public lands, forfeiting broader economic benefits in pursuit of an aesthetic ideal, they should be honest about it and take their case to Congress and the American people. But in President Clinton these groups found a president that was only too willing to cut corners and be slick in advancing this selfish, exclusionist agenda.



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