Unwilding the West

July 15, 2004

ELECTED OFFICIALS in Western states grumble frequently that so much of the land within their borders is federally owned.

Dad-blasted Easterners junked up and clear-cut most of their end of the continent, but demand that millions of acres of Western wilderness remain wild because that's about all there is left to protect.

So, there's cheering in the mesas and the mountains, from Alaska to the Rio Grande, because President Bush has decided to reverse a long-developed course on national wilderness protection policy by essentially leaving such decisions up to the locals.

"The president has again proven that he and his administration understand that state, tribal and local governments are best equipped to make key decisions about the future of our public lands," observed Montana's Republican Gov. Judy Martz.

But we dad-blasted Easterners, and, according to previous indicators, a majority of the nation, believe Mr. Bush is absolutely wrong about that.

He's opened nearly 60 million acres of roadless land in national forests and grasslands spread mostly across 12 Western states to development, particularly logging and mining.

This is simply not a states' rights issue. Congress should move quickly to squelch Mr. Bush's proposed change in the forest management rules before they take effect two months from now.

Of course, the rules change is an election-year bow to Bush supporters in those mostly Republican areas and the timber and mining industries. It would replace a sweeping protection of the 58.5 million acres ordered by former President Clinton shortly before he left office in January 2001, which was bitterly opposed in many of the states affected.

If Sen. John Kerry, Mr. Bush's still unofficial Democratic challenger, is elected this fall, he might well restore the Clinton policy.

But these priceless wild places shouldn't be captive of shifting political winds, and are far too delicate to be restored once they are spoiled by development.

Over the generations since Americans first settled in the West, the view of preservation has gradually evolved. Initially, much land was put aside to ensure access to its mineral and other resources. But as conservation policy has become more enlightened, Americans have come to understand that some portion of wilderness should be preserved for its own sake.

Even under the Clinton policy, which drew overwhelming support in submitted comments and more than 600 public hearings, only about one-third of the total 191 million acres of national forests would have been protected by the roadless designation.

The administration argues that giving state officials a role in managing the national forests would end the uncertainty of litigation that put the Clinton policy in limbo.

But if it's lawsuits Mr. Bush fears, reaction from conservationists to this new policy suggests, he ain't seen nothing yet.

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