Goodbye, Roadless Rule

Summertime is typically when politicians green-up their reputations, grandstanding in parks and engaging in outdoorsy events. The virtues of protecting America's natural heritage are declared. National parks are toured with children in tow. Fourth of July and Labor Day political events are set against dramatic backdrops of beaches, mountains and farmland, all to underscore the enduring union of our nation's physical and philosophical landscapes.

Perhaps that's why I reacted with some surprise when the Bush administration announced just this week that it will open nearly 60 million acres of our nation's most pristine and wild forests to development. Never mind that the announcement is a full-scale flip-flop of the president's promise last year not to overturn the so-called roadless forest rule.

It's a destructive policy that will replace a cohesive system of federal protections with a patchwork system that leaves our national forest lands up for grabs by local political pressures. If Theodore Roosevelt had such a cramped vision of the federal role in land conservation there would be a parking lot at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

You'd think by now the element of surprise would have vanished. For three years running the Bush Administration has issued a steady stream of regulatory missives quietly dismantling federal protections for our air, land and water.

One week it rewrote clean water laws so that 20 million acres of wetlands were left unprotected. Another week it decided thousands of gallons of highly radioactive waste slated for cleanup were better left in the ground. Next it moved to exempt oil and gas industries from following laws to protect surface and drinking water. It ordered thousands of acres of sensitive land opened for energy development even while slashing energy efficiency programs. And it proposed rules to allow more toxic mercury into the environment.

So bad have been hundreds of environmental rollbacks issued to date, that the Environmental Protection Agency's two most senior enforcement officials quit, at least partly in reaction to the onslaught.

And thus far there has been a pattern to the administration's actions. The bald-faced repeal of environmental laws through open, legislative debate attempted during the Newt Gingrich era have been abandoned in favor of stealth attempts to rewrite the laws at the agency level.

Regulations are now "clarified" and draconian proposals issued with happy face monikers such as "Clear Skies" and "Healthy Forests" suggesting at least a mild concern about appearances. Even the current proposal to revoke protections for pristine national forests is wrapped in the fake shroud of states' rights.

The proposal requires governors to petition the government to protect forests in their state from roadbuilding and logging. But these are lands that have already been deemed to have a value significant enough to be entrusted to the federal government to protect for the benefit of the nation as a whole.

As Virginia Gov. Mark Warner pointed out in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, a state by state approach is unnecessary "and would undermine the important national rule necessary to insure the conservation of roadless areas for the use of present and future generations."

That shift, the suggestion that private and state interests should dominate the principle of collective stewardship for a higher, common purpose, reflects what truly is at stake in the administration's approach to policy.

Until now the American tradition has been largely guided by a vision that clean air, clean water and wild lands are common human assets requiring a collective stewardship that will protect and preserve them for the benefit of current and future generations. Indeed it was the failure of states to effectively establish and enforce adequate protection of resources that led to the creation of a federal EPA.

The administration's effort to uproot that tradition and advance a conservative agenda in the form of states' rights and restrained government is apparent on many fronts but is perhaps most visible in its approach to the environment. With this proposed rule the administration has come down squarely and dramatically in favor of private timber and energy interests over the public good. The proposal reverses a plan that would have protected millions of acres of unspoiled national forest land in 39 states. It's a fundamental assault on America's natural legacy and our national values, and it's hardly the stuff of campaign photo ops.

This administration is felling the proverbial forest to log some literal trees.

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