End of the road?

Capping off one of the biggest conservation campaigns in recent history, President Bill Clinton last week gave his approval to a sweeping new rule to protect wild national forest land.

Clinton signed the Roadless Area Conservation Rule on Jan. 5 during a ceremony at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. The new rule places nearly 60 million acres of national forest off-limits to new road building and commercial logging. In California, some 4.4 million acres will be protected.

“We are absolutely thrilled,” said Tina Andolina, with the California Wilderness Coalition. “It is a huge victory and the most significant environmental policy we have seen in the last 100 years.”

She noted that the policy protects more land than all of the national parks combined. The real fun begins now, however, as some congressional Republicans have vowed to undo the policy with, they are hoping, the help of President-elect George W. Bush.

Among the most outspoken are Idaho’s Rep. Larry Craig (R) and Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, also a Republican, who are both poised to bring lawsuits challenging the rule, claiming that it was not adequately reviewed.

If those efforts don’t work, the rule has plenty of enemies in Congress who will be inclined to legislate it out of existence, including the entire Alaskan delegation led by Sen. Frank Murkowski.

And there’s always a chance that “W” himself might step in and try to undo the rule by executive order. Andolino said Bush would be shooting himself in the foot if he did.

The new rule has proven popular with the public, even if it isn’t a hit on Capitol Hill. Nearly 2 million people weighed in supporting the policy as the National Forest Service was reviewing it.

“With the level of public support that’s out there, he’d really be thumbing his nose at the American public,” said Andolina.

In a surprise move that delighted environmental groups, the Forest Service approved one controversial provision of the rule that provides more protection to the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. That portion of the rule was widely thought to be off the table until 2004.