Bush finds inroads into Wilderness Act

National forests are important to the whole country – not just to individual states.

According to the Bush administration, national wilderness areas are still fair game for development and logging – despite having been designated as worthy of federal protection by Congress. At least that’s what it looks like under President George W. Bush’s new policy that basically overturned the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which protected 58.5 million acres of national forests.

The so-called “roadless rule” is now in the hands of the states’ governors. They must decide by 2006 whether to petition the federal government to block road construction in their states’ national forests – roads that fragment the forests, and might pave the way for more logging opportunities.

In the wake of the 40th anniversary of the Wilderness Act on Sept. 3, this policy is especially disturbing. Although Bush has signed laws adding 529,604 acres of wilderness, his changes to the way the act works are highly detrimental.

For example, land pegged for future wilderness designation used to be free from human exploitation. But Bush instructed the Department of the Interior to allow oil and gas drilling on proposed areas that have not been officially designated by Congress yet. Now, thousands of acres of these proposed areas are being drilled in the Western states. This is an example of shameless pandering to timber and oil concerns.

Almost 5 percent of the United States is designated as wilderness. The act was the first of its kind – other nations have used it as a model to protect their pristine environments. Relegating the roadless rule to the governors only weakens the act by lessening the likelihood of these forests becoming wilderness.

Advocates of the policy change argue roadless areas can be dangerous, and the act keeps the public off public lands. But national forests are designated as such because the federal government has deemed them important enough to be protected for the whole country – not individual states. The Wilderness Act and the national forests it protects are benefits to our nation. We need to keep the processes protecting them intact.