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Public Opinion Sought on Road Ban

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Friday July 6 7:11 PM ET

By KATHERINE PFLEGER, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Forest Service has come up with 10 questions for the public to consider before it revises a Clinton-era ban on logging and road construction on a third of national forest land.

The questions include how the government can best satisfy competing interests while protecting national forests, and how ``roadless'' forests should be protected from wildfires, insects and disease.

The government also wants to know what activities should be prohibited in roadless areas, how the rights of nearby property owners should be protected and what role local forest managers should play in protecting the areas.

``It is important to give people additional time to express their views on how best to move this process forward,'' Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth said in a statement Friday. ``If we spend the extra time now, we have a better chance of coming up with a workable solution.''

The ban instituted by Clinton just before he left office ropes off 58.5 million acres from developers, loggers and mining companies. Environmentalists hailed the rule as much-needed protection for the most pristine parts of the national forest system.

But some timber industry and off-road vehicle groups say the policy is too restrictive.

The Bush administration also considers the policy flawed, and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman in May promised to amend it, specifically to allow more local ideas. Veneman oversees the Forest Service.

A short time later, a federal judge blocked implementation, saying the policy would cause ``irreparable harm'' to federal forests.

Conservationists often point to the 1.6 million public comments and 600 hearings that preceded the Clinton rule as proof that more public input is unnecessary.

Marty Hayden, legislative director for Earthjustice, said the Bush administration is asking questions that relate only to objections raised about the policy.

For instance, the timber industry has argued that the health of the forest would be jeopardized if roads cannot be built to remove trees that serve as fuel for wildfires.

Hayden also is concerned the government will return decisions on how to manage roadless areas to local forest managers, rather than rely on a national policy. He said that local management created a 386,000-mile road network and an $8.5 billion maintenance backlog.

``That takes us exactly back to the situation that created the need for a roadless policy in the first place,'' he said.

But American Forest & Paper Association spokesman Michael Klein said the questions are a ``good sign'' if they look at whether the rule accomplishes its goals and was crafted in the best way possible.

Klein's group has filed one of eight lawsuits against the Clinton policy.

The 10 questions are scheduled to be printed in the Federal Register on Tuesday, which will start a 60-day public comment period. The document sent to be printed says how the department ultimately protects roadless areas depends on court decisions, public comments and practical options for amending the rule.

Western Republicans, including Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, have criticized the rule. Craig called the questions ``the first step toward a solution.''

But Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairman, worries that the administration may be reviving fundamental questions about the rule's necessity. He said through a spokesman he's not against more public comment but would oppose anything that would ``undo or undermine the rule.''

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