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President goes after forests like a buzz saw


Let's try to give President Bush the benefit of our doubt.
Let's assume he's a champion of the environment, a protector of verdant national forests, green at heart.
Now, let's look at his actions.
Those sounds you hear are bulldozers revving, buzz saws whirring in preparation to slash forestlands currently under protection.
The president doesn't want you to think about his office giving the go ahead to knock down precious national resources. About how his administration is on the verge of letting folks log on 58 million acres of national forest, including 2 million acres in Washington state and 2 million more in Oregon.
They don't want you to consider any of this before Election Day because the desire to cut and clear could become a fir-sized splinter in the eye of Bush's re-election bid.
That's one explanation for why the administration this week put on hold a decision on whether to allow logging and the building of roads on now-protected forest space. Bush officials deny the move was political or related to the election. They say the delay is about giving citizens more time to discuss the issue.
But really, what more is there to discuss?
The American public has resoundingly said, time and again, it wants to keep the current forest protection in place.
The administration thinks we are slumbering fools.
As soon as Bush & Co. are in the clear -- assuming he gets re-elected -- they will make pulp of the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, also known as the "roadless rule."
The whole thing will happen faster than a chainsaw can knock a spotted owl from a tree.
"The administration has shirked its legal duty to defend and uphold the law in every case," Todd True, an attorney with Earthjustice, has said. "Instead, it has apparently chosen a political strategy to use the courts selectively to undercut important environmental protections."
The roadless rule came about because the Clinton administration wanted to save the last wild portions of national forest and grasslands that were undeveloped.
Hundreds of public meetings were held at the time. Millions of public comments were put on the record in what turned out to be an unprecedented show of citizen support for forestland protection.
The Forest Service adopted the rule, which the Bush administration in a few short years has pounced on. The administration did inexplicably reverse course two years ago by filing a brief in defense of the roadless rule.
That action, which occurred in a North Dakota case, either was an aberration -- the administration isn't rushing to defend cases all over -- a sly tactic to score points with critics, or a case of flip-flop at the top.
In his 2000 presidential campaign, Bush ended up in a place in Eastern Washington he called "the river on the Snake." "When you own your land," Bush said at the time, "every day is an Earth Day."
Which is precisely how many Americans feel. We want our public lands kept up. Every day. We want them nurtured for future generations.
The Bush administration is pushing for a change that would effectively repeal the roadless rule protection.
It would require governors to petition the federal government if they want to retain protection for the roadless forest areas in their state.
Such high hurdles seem to go against the spirit of the existing rule, the show of public favor for land protection and common sense.
The current provision doesn't "lock up" land, preventing the multiple use of forestlands, as critics contend. The 58 million acres affected are part of 191 million acres in the broader national forest system.
"That leaves more than half of the national forest system open to potential logging, or development," explains Tom Uniack, conservation director of the Washington Wilderness Coalition. "The current rule is about protecting the one-third of our forest that hasn't been developed."
Roadless areas give federally endangered or threatened species -- the grizzly bear and salmon come to mind -- a better chance for survival.
The areas also help provide clean drinking water for places such as Port Townsend, which gets its tap water from a roadless area in the Olympic National Forest.
There's a money issue too. More than 300,000 miles of roads crisscross the national forest system. There's a backlog of $10 billion of repairs needed to improve the old, failing logging pathways. The roads -- and the sediments they unleash -- smother aquatic life, including salmon streams throughout the Northwest.
Why build more roads when current ones are run down? Why open lush preserves of land to commercial degradation?
Past behavior is a good indication of future behavior.
The Bush administration fought to open the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling as part of its chief energy objective.
Now, the administration shows signs of wanting to pave the way to develop protected forestlands to satisfy the appetite of timber and mining companies.
So what about Bush being green at heart?
He is.
The president loves the color of money, the environment be damned.
P-I columnist Robert L. Jamieson Jr. can be reached at 206-448-8125 or [email protected]
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