BOSTON — The Bush administration is receiving a barrage of criticism from public officials, environmentalists and outdoors groups for opening up federal wilderness lands to timber, mining, oil and gas drilling corporations, as well as to tourism development companies.

The administration’s new forest policy, announced May 5, would revoke the “Roadless Rule” enacted by the Clinton administration in 2001. That rule protected almost 60 million acres of national forests from corporate encroachment.

Under the new rules, individual state governments would have to prepare studies and petition the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to challenge commercial development. Even so, the USFS would still have the final say.

Andrew Falender, executive director of the Appalachian Mountain Club headquartered here, said in a letter to the USFS that the new rule “ignores the strong scientific justification for the conservation of roadless areas” as well as “completely ignores the public comment received during the original rule-making process” in which over 1.6 million people participated, with more than 90 percent supporting stronger protection for federally owned wilderness areas.

Sean Cosgrove, national forest policy specialist for the Sierra Club, said the “Roadless Rule was the product of exhaustive studies and scientific, economic and public input,” which included more than 600 public meetings and “garnered 10 times more public comments than any federal rule in history.” The Bush administration is trying to “ignore over 4 million public comments in support of wild forest protection,” he said, and instead is “finding ways to provide millions of dollars in subsidies to the timber industry.”

Cosgrove called the proposed state petition process a “sham” and simply another unfunded mandate, putting an excessive burden on states already grappling with tight budgets and limited staffing.

“From day one, the administration has worked to weaken or eliminate the core protections for America’s wild forests,” he said, “putting the interests of the timber industry ahead of the clean water, recreational opportunities, economic benefits and wildlife habitat that these forests provide the country.”

League of Conservation Voters President Deb Callahan said the administration “is once again selling out to the logging and timber industry instead of siding with the American people. … It’s time to stop the outrageous assault on our national forests.”

Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski said the administration’s new rules would “create uncertainty about the protection of these special areas,” pointing out that there is “no guarantee that Oregon’s recommendations will be adopted.” Kulongoski vowed to fight to protect the state’s wilderness areas “commensurate with the 2001 rule.” Virginia Gov. Mark Warner has also come out against the new rules.

While both Kulongoski and Warner are Democrats, some Republican governors are also making comments in support of maintaining the Roadless Rule — a clear concession to public opinion. On the same day the new rules were announced, for example, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he had an agreement with the USFS to keep that state’s 4.4 million acres of federal forest land protected.

However, Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, said that he expects petitions from environment-friendly governors will carry less weight with the Bush administration than those from governors who are not so pro-environment.

Conservation and outdoors groups say that the national forest system belongs to the people of the whole country and that state officials, who may only listen to people from their state, should not have the power to decide the fate of the forests.

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