After holding 600 public meetings and reading 1.6 million citizen comments, the U.S. Forest Service released its final version of a plan to limit road-building on nearly one-third of America's national forests (HCN, 11/8/99: A new road for the public lands).


The preferred alternative now includes protecting 9.3 million acres in Alaska's Tongass National Forest, starting in 2004, and expanding the ban on road building to 58.5 million acres of national forest. While the earlier version released last May allowed local forest managers to decide whether to restrict logging, the new plan allows logging only to reduce the risk of wildfire or to help endangered species. It would also prohibit any new leases for mining coal and other minerals if new road construction would be required. The plan would ask for up to $20 million over the next four years to help loggers in affected communities find jobs.


Critics like Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, say the new version still disregards rural communities and Western states.


"The new roadless rule is even more restrictive than the previous version," says Will Heart, a Craig spokesman. Craig and other Western legislators will try to reverse it in Congress, he adds.


Criticism also came from many environmentalists who said the Tongass needed protection immediately, rather than starting in 2004. But in general, most greens were thrilled with the revised plan.


"This is a very big thing that the Forest Service had done by significantly improving their recommendation on the basis of overwhelming public output," says Ken Rait of the Oregon Natural Resources Coalition. "There's no doubt that this is the single largest broad-scale conservation effort in the last century."


Clinton is expected to approve the plan after Dec. 18. The five-inch thick document is available for review at all Forest Service offices, 10,000 public libraries nationwide and on the Web at www.roadless.fs.fed.us.