BOISE, Idaho (AP) – Environmentalists are blasting a Bush administration proposal to lift a ban on logging in remote areas of national forests, saying the move ignores popular support for protecting forests.

The plan announced Monday would allow logging by permitting roads to be constructed in national forests. Governors would have to petition the federal government to block road building.

“When the Forest Service originally proposed protecting these special places to hunt, fish and camp, the millions of public comments received were overwhelmingly supportive,” Idaho Conservation League spokesman John Robinson said. “There’s no reason to drag out this fight.”

The rule would replace one adopted by the Clinton administration and still under challenge in federal court. It covers about 58 million of the 191 million acres of national forest nationwide.

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, visiting the state Capitol in Boise on Monday, argued that the administration’s new approach will end the legal uncertainty surrounding the Clinton administration’s attempt to protect forests as it was leaving office in January 2001.

Veneman said the new plan gives governors a chance to weigh in on how the roadless land in their states should be managed – something Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne said was long overdue.

“There are areas in Idaho that should appropriately be designated as roadless,” said Kempthorne, a Republican. “I don’t dispute that. But there is a right way and a wrong way. Today the Bush administration is doing it the right way.”

Administration officials predicted governors would petition to keep areas roadless as well as to open tracts up to development.

Idaho was one of the first states to go to court to block the Clinton plan since it affected 9.3 million acres in the state, the most in the lower 48 states.

Jim Riley of the Intermountain Forest Association, which represents the timber industry, embraced the proposal, maintaining that “these decisions are far better made by local folks than through broad national policy.”

But New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, said the Forest Service was “walking away from environmental protection.”

Richardson said he would ask that all 1.1 million acres of roadless land in his state remain protected and planned to urge other western governors to do the same.

“They should not open these areas, period,” Richardson said.

Under the proposal, the 58.5 million acres designated as roadless among the 191 million acres of national forest will be protected from development for another 18 months.

In 2006, each governor may submit a proposal either to continue protecting the roadless land or allow it opened to multiple use. The federal government would consider each state petition and then issue a regulation determining the extent of future roadless protection.

“To take it down to the state level like this really undermines having a national forest system,” said Craig Gehrke, spokesman for The Wilderness Society. “You don’t have state Social Security plans. Why should we have state roadless plans?”

Philip Clapp, president of National Environmental Trust, called the proposal “the biggest single giveaway to the timber industry in the history of the national forests.”

“The Bush administration is trying to short-circuit court proceedings that might end up leaving protections for the untouched 30 percent of the national forests in place,” he said.

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AP-ES-07-13-04 0304EDT

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