Imagine a forest totally free of roads, a conservationist's paradise without logging and mining, but available for hilers and fishermen to enjoy.
Now, wrap this road-free idyll around existing state and private lands that generate state tax revenue and provide livelihoods for local communities -- in many instances through logging, mining and tourism. That's what a nervous group of Western governors claim a Clinton administration national-forest proposal would achieve in 38 states if approved.
Further fueling the governors' anxiety is that they don't know exactly which state and private lands would be affected.
The U.S. Forest Service has its eye on up to 54 million acres -- 84,000 square miles -- of the nation's forests, and is in the process of deciding which lands it will declare off-limits to new road construction, certain recreational uses and resource extraction. Even repairs for existing roads could be banned.
Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne addressed the matter with Clinton this week during a White House meeting. The Republican governor was accompanied by several other state chief executives visiting Washington, D.C., for the National Governors' Association's winter meeting.
"I went into the ramifications of the plan, which will affect nearly nine million acres in Idaho, and explained the impacts on state trust lands, our school endowment, and -- ultimately -- childrens' education," Kempthorne said. "The President then stopped the meeting and asked for more details. I will gladly provide him with our perspective on the impacts."
Republican Colorado Governor Bill Owens characterized the president's attitude toward future cooperation as "encouraging."
Less sanguine was Democratic Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles, who has said that if logging is halted in Alaska's Tongass National Forest due to a road ban, Knowles might oppose Vice President Gore's bid for the presidency.
Alaska, Idaho, Montana, California, Colorado and Utah top the list of states with the largest acreage of inventoried road-free lands, with between four and 12 million acres each.
Last week, Forest Service Chief Michael Dombeck told a Senate subcommittee that his agency does not intend to include states as official cooperating agencies when it drafts its rules for designating permanent road-free areas in national forests later this year. But some governors at the recent NGA meeting expressed hope that state and local leaders will be given a substantial role, in light of the governors' sit-down with Clinton.
"We are not going to involve state agencies," Dombeck told the Subcommittee on Forests and Public Land Management during an exchange with Wyoming Senator Craig Thomas. Forest Service officials later qualified Dombeck's remark, saying that although the agency doesn't intend to treat states as official partners in the rulemaking process, it would consult states and local residents.
The senators on the Forests and Public Land Management panel, mostly Republican and all from Western states, expressed concern that permanent road-free classifications could cut access to intermingled state and private lands and diminish states' abilities to benefit from recreational uses and valuable timber and mineral resources.
"It's going to be very difficult to actually generate revenue from state trust lands that could be encompassed within a roadless designation," Montana Forest Management Bureau Chief Tom Schultz says.
Dombeck and Agriculture Undersecretary Jim Lyons have defended the merits of the initiative. Roadless areas "serve as a reservoir of rare and vanishing resources," Lyons told the Senate subcommittee.
Federal action to shape the road-free initiative has been a brushfire issue in Western states in recent months.