Ban stands for now, but changes will allow local governments more say in decision-making process, sources say

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration will try to revise a Clinton-era ban on road-building and most logging in a third of the country's national forests to allow decisions to be made locally on a forest-by-forest basis, officials said Thursday.

The Clinton ban, which covered 58.5 million acres, will remain in place until a new rule is devised, according to administration and congressional officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"We are going to be reviewing it for a while, but at least we are going to be doing it on a site-specific basis where real land considerations can be made," a congressional source said.

This official stressed the current protections for roadless areas would remain until each forest is analyzed.

Exactly how the new rule would be crafted was still fluid late Thursday, but more details could emerge when the Bush administration files a brief Friday in response to a lawsuit brought by the state of Idaho seeking to block the rule.

The policy, announced Jan. 5, was supposed to take effect in March. The Bush administration delayed implementation until May 12 while it conducted a review. Official announcement of the decision to revise the plan was expected Friday at a news conference by Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman.

The Clinton administration began creating the rules about three years ago. Its policy was praised by environmentalists as a way to protect the nation's forests against development and preserve critical wildlife habitats. Opponents, including the timber and mining industries, say the rules needlessly place valuable resources off-limits.

The state of Idaho and timber company Boise Cascade sued in federal court in Boise seeking to block the rule from taking effect. The Bush administration had until Friday to file a brief with the court outlining its analysis of the rule.

In an interim decision, U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge rejected a call for an immediate block on the policy, but said there was "strong evidence" that the process was hurried and the Forest Service was not prepared to produce a "coherent proposal or meaningful dialogue and that the end result was predetermined."

While awaiting the judge's final decision, Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, said he would be disappointed if the Bush administration kept the ban in place while a new rule was crafted. Such a move could put forests in the West at risk to insects, disease and fire because the roadless areas will be inaccessible, he said.

"What has us worried is what they are going to be doing in the interim," said West, whose Portland, Ore.-based group represents timber interests.

Jim Lyons, an agriculture undersecretary in the Clinton administration who oversaw the Forest Service, said the only way the Bush administration could legally change the rules was through the rule-making process, which provides the opportunity for public comment.

"Clearly, the people close to this process have a strong philosophical problem with protecting roadless areas," said Lyons, now a professor at Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

Marty Hayden, legislative director for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, said he thought the expected revisions would take the Bush administration back to where the government started three years ago - trying to maintain 380,000 miles of roads that have an $8.5 billion maintenance backlog.

"They have chosen not to suspend it because they are feeling the heat of the public support that was behind the rule in the first place," Hayden said. "But they are still heading down a path for undoing it."

The vast majority of roadless federal forests are in the West, including parts of Montana and Idaho's Bitterroot Mountains and Alaska's Tongass, viewed by environmentalists as North America's rain forest. Smaller sections are scattered across the country from Florida's Apalachicola National Forest and Virginia's George Washington National Forest to New Hampshire's White Mountains.

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