Watch CBSN Live

Environmentalists 1, Loggers 0

In a major win for environmentalists, the Clinton administration has added Alaska's Tongass National Forest - the nation's largest - to a protection plan for some of America's most pristine lands.

The plan covers 58.5 million acres of national forests that do not have roads.

The plan prohibits road-building; bans logging except when such activity is deemed to help maintain or improve areas; seeks to improve habitats for threatened, endangered or sensitive species; and attempts to reduce the risk of severe wildfires.

Environmentalists have been pressing for years for a road ban because they believe the pathways increase erosion, disrupt wildlife habitat and make it easier for logging trucks and mining operators to reach remote public lands.

A draft of the plan in May covered 43 million acres - an area the size of Washington state - but delayed until 2004 a decision on whether to include the 8.5 million roadless acres in the Tongass. Under the new plan, the protections would be extended to the Tongass in 2004.

Administration officials released the new version of the plan Monday after receiving an avalanche of comments at public hearings and through written correspondence, mainly from environmentalists seeking a broader plan.

"Never before have the American people so actively participated in helping to decide how their public lands should be managed," said Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman. "The fact that more than 1.5 million comments were received from Americans show that these truly are all of the people's lands, not just a few, and they care deeply about how they are cared for."

AP Photo
The new plan also puts
sharp restrictions on
logging in forests that
do not have roads.

Environmentalists had been hopeful the outpouring would prompt the Clinton administration to expand the plan, and expressed satisfaction with the changes.

"The administration really has responded to the public by moving this forward," said Ken Rait, director of the Heritage Forests Campaign in Portland, Oregon.

Forest industry officials said many people who want the option of building roads did not comment because they felt Forest Service officials already had made up their minds.

Barry Polsky, a spokesman for the American Forest and Paper Association, contended the plan will increase the risk of fire and bug infestation in forests.

Monday's announcement is the next-to-last step in the process for crafting a roadless rule without the involvement of Congress. Agency officials will decide whether to make still more changes before they publish a final rule in mid-December, just a month before President Clinton leaves office.

By John Hughes © 2000, The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed