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Roadless forests protect nation

With school out and temperatures rising, millions of Americans will turn to our national forests this summer for camping, hiking or just some much-needed quiet and shade. Yet while these places may seem to be oases of calm, they are at the center of one of America's most important conservation struggles today.

The backbone of protection for our national forests is the preservation of roadless areas. And while the struggle to protect these last unprotected wild lands may not be grabbing many headlines lately, the outcome of this debate will impact generations to come.

One of our nation's most precious natural treasures, roadless areas provide some of America's most pristine outdoor playgrounds. They offer numerous backpacking, hunting, fishing and other recreational opportunities and also supply critical habitat for fish and wildlife as well.

For instance, half the summer elk herd in the United States is concentrated in roadless areas, and in just the state of Idaho alone, 68 percent of the state's entire bull trout population can currently only be found in roadless forests. Even more important, perhaps, roadless areas provide clean drinking water for thousands of U.S. communities. Home to more than 2,000 major watersheds, these areas help to purify drinking water, slow runoff and reduce flooding and erosion. Yet, despite their significant economic and ecological benefits, the fate of these precious lands is in jeopardy.

The question of how to protect America's last wild forests has been the subject of debate for decades. In 2001, a breakthrough was finally achieved - a landmark conservation policy known as the Roadless Area Conservation Rule.

Including more than 600 public hearings and more than 2 million public comments, the 2001 rule was the product of a remarkable conversation between Americans and their government. It provided uniform protection for 58 million acres of roadless forests across the nation and tied together the nation's patchwork of local forest management practices - balancing recreational usages with logging, mining and drilling interests.

Without as much as a single hearing, however, the Bush administration repealed this rule last May. Now, instead of strong and clear federal protections, the administration has created a state-by-state process fracturing our last unprotected wild places.

A resource collectively owned by all Americans now lies at the discretion of individual governors and an unreceptive White House. Perhaps even more disturbing, though, is that the administration has already broken its promise to protect these forests while governors decide how best to proceed.

Despite assurances to the contrary, the Forest Service has begun to move forward with logging, mining, road construction and other projects in roadless areas around the nation. Over a dozen projects under consideration would build roads into, or log and mine, once-protected roadless areas. One project has already carved roads through the Sage Creek Roadless Area in Idaho to mine for phosphate.

Other proposed projects include oil and gas drilling in Colorado and Utah, as well as logging and road construction in New Hampshire, Alaska, Oregon, Minnesota and Wyoming. And that's just for starters.

A growing coalition of Americans, however, has banded together to fight for stronger protections. A group of governors and attorneys general from six states have joined a lawsuit challenging the legality of the Bush rollback. Governors from four states, both Democrats and Republicans, have submitted petitions to reinstate the protections provided by the 2001 rule for roadless areas in their states.

And earlier this year more than a quarter-million Americans, including over 100 current and former U.S. Olympic athletes, filed a formal petition requesting the White House reinstate the original rule.

But the question remains whether the Bush administration will heed the call of this growing chorus or continue to listen only to its allies in the logging, mining, oil and gas industries.

The value of our national forests cannot be measured solely in board feet. A legacy entrusted to us by generations past, these lands are a gift and we must act as responsible caretakers of this collective treasure for future generations. The joy of a summer cookout while camping in the Sequoia, Carson, Allegheny or any of our national forests is something that families should be able to enjoy for many, many summers to come.

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Robert C. Vandermark is director of the Heritage Forests Campaign at the National Environmental Trust (www.ourforests.org). Readers may write to him at National Environmental Trust, 1200 18th Street NW, Suite 500, Washington DC 20036, or e-mail him at rvandermarknet.org. --