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Roadless Comment Period Extended to Nov. 15, 2004

 09-08) 13:20 PDT WASHINGTON (AP) --

The Bush administration said Wednesday it will put off until after the election a final decision on whether to allow road building and logging on 58 million acres of national forest where both are now prohibited.

Public comments on the proposed rule change, announced in July, will now be accepted through Nov. 15, instead of an earlier deadline set for next week.

Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who directs U.S. forest policy, called the delay a "fairly straightforward" response to requests from a variety of groups for more time.

"It's unrelated to the elections," Rey said.

But environmentalists said the administration appeared to be rethinking the plan -- at least temporarily -- in the face of widespread opposition.

"I think the administration recognizes the folly of opening up 58 million acres of protected forests during an electoral campaign," said Jay Ward, political director of the Oregon Natural Resources Council, an environmental group.

"With hundreds of thousands of comments pouring into the Forest Service admonishing their proposal, the American people clearly continue to overwhelmingly support protecting our last wild forests," said Robert Vandermark, co-director of the Heritage Forests Campaign, another environmental group.

The administration said in July it is reversing the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, a 2001 executive order by President Clinton that prohibits road construction on nearly a third of federal forestland. No roads has meant no logging, mining or oil and gas development.

The new policy calls for governors to decide by 2006 whether to petition the federal government to permit new roads in their forests or keep them untouched.

The bulk of the land is in the West, including 4.4 million acres in Colorado, 2 million acres each in Oregon and Washington state, and 1.6 million acres in New Mexico. All are considered battleground states in the presidential election.

Ward, of the Oregon resources group, said opposition to the proposed rule change is substantial throughout the West, and may have been enough for the administration to recalculate its plans. More than 2.5 million people commented on the original Clinton plan, with about 95 percent in favor of forest protection.

Opposition to the Bush rule "may not be significant in every state, but in a swing state like Oregon or New Mexico it's enough to cost the president the election," Ward said.

Rey called that wishful thinking and said the delay should be taken at face value.

"It indicates only that we've had a number of requests from a wide range of groups who made a reasonable case they need more time, and we're giving it to them," he said.

Comments may be mailed to the Forest Service, Attn: Roadless State Petitions, P.O. Box 221090, Salt Lake City, Utah 84122, or e-mailed to statepetitionroadless(at)
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