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National forests in Montana and northern Idaho will honor a court's injunction of a Clinton-administration policy protecting roadless areas from development, a regional Forest Service official said Friday.

But the areas will be protected nonetheless, said Tom Rhode, the Northern Region planner responsible for review and implementation of the so-called roadless initiative.

In fact, the areas never were proposed for anything more than limited development, he said.

"We will just proceed with caution at this point," Rhode said. "The prudent thing for us to do is to not implement the rule, but to stay the course in terms of protecting roadless areas and their characteristics."

As ordered in the Clinton administration's last hours, the roadless initiative prohibited road building and commercial logging on 58.5 million acres of national forest land where roads have not been built, including 6.4 million acres in Montana and 9.3 million acres in Idaho.

Then came the Bush administration, and the roadless set-aside was itself set aside, pending review by the incoming secretary of agriculture.

In the meantime, the state of Idaho, Boise Cascade and others sued the federal government, saying there had been too little public comment and asking that the rule be overturned.

Then came Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, announcing the Forest Service would let the roadless protections take effect on May 12 - Saturday - but would amend the rule to allow management needed to reduce the threat of severe wildfires, insects and disease in some backcountry forests.

On Thursday, a federal judge in Boise granted the state of Idaho's requested injunction and prohibited implementation of the roadless protections. Once a rule takes effect, the judge said, "options are closed and agency commitments, if not set in concrete, will be the subject of litigation for years to come."

That led to Rhode's explanation Friday. Yes, Northern Region forests would abide by the judge's order. But no, there would be no attempt to develop roadless areas while the legal and political debate continues.

"What we need to see now is how the administration and the chief decide to proceed, and see how the courts proceed with appeals to the judge's direction," Rhode said. "As of last Friday, we were going to amend the rule. Now I don't know whether we will write amendments or go back and rewrite the entire rule. Nobody knows yet."

A similar message came from officials in Washington, D.C. In a written statement, Veneman promised to "move forward with an open and fair process that addresses the concerns raised" by the roadless initiative.

"It is important that we address these issues to ensure the protection of our forests while addressing reasonable issues raised by the rule," she said.

The Forest Service will gather more local input and information, Veneman said. Foresters will ensure access to public property that lies within roadless areas, and they will work with communities to protect roadless forests from wildfire, disease and insects.

She emphasized, though, that the Bush administration "is committed to providing roadless protection for our national forests." She did not say whether the government would appeal the court order.

Because of the injunction, Rhode said, "there could be projects proposed in roadless areas. But I don't see us doing that at this point. Unless there's some project out there that we think would be beneficial to protecting an area from the kind of thing the administration talked about - fire, disease or insects - I can't see projects even being proposed."

"And proposing a project and implementing it are two different things completely," he said. "You would need to go through the planning process. It would take quite a bit of time."

The Northern Region forests never proposed more than limited development of roadless areas, Rhode said. Full implementation of the roadless set-aside would affect about 4 million board feet of timber cutting annually and about three miles of road building.

Reporter Sherry Devlin can be reached at 523-5268 or at sdevlin@missoulian.com.

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