Roads ahead

December 27, 2004

WILDERNESS ADVOCATES had such big hopes for California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He's a Republican, but kind of a moderate and a bit of a green. And he's from a very large state. He would have been the perfect champion to lead the cause against President Bush's drive to ditch a ban on road-building in the nation's most pristine forests.

But nooooooo.

Mr. Schwarzenegger appears disinclined to apply any muscle at all. He isn't opposing the Bush plan to allow states to decide whether or not to designate roadless areas within their borders. Nor he is even offering a proposal for how to manage the 4 million acres of California wilderness that would suddenly be opened to road-building, timbering and other development.

Alas, the Terminator could have been a tie-breaker in what has unfortunately become a partisan split over federal protection of remote national forests, most of which remain only in the West. Unless a new champion arises, Mr. Bush appears to be on the verge of balkanizing these precious areas, allowing regional economic interests to decide the fate of national treasures.

Greater state control is being greeted warmly by mostly Republican governors, who are eager to escape the federal roadless edict President Bill Clinton imposed on 58.4 million acres, about one-third of the country's national forest.

But even Democratic governors who supported the Clinton ban will find it difficult to reinstate similar protections under state authority because too much time and money will be required to evaluate their inventories, solicit public comment and put state designations to a vote.

Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, who didn't like the Clinton roadless rule, either, called the Bush plan "a cosmetic attempt to shift the Forest Service's responsibility for land-use planning to the states without shifting any authority or funds to see the plans implemented."

Such environmental issues were virtually nonexistent in the presidential campaign. But that doesn't mean Americans don't care about them.

The administration is still sifting through the reams of citizens' comments it has received in the six months since its overturn of the roadless rule was proposed.

So there's still time for Governor Schwarzenegger to help terminate that really bad idea. Hasta la vista, baby.

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