Sunday, April 22, 2001



Dedicate Earth Day to
saving national treasures

WASHINGTON >> There are no national forests in the District of Columbia nor, for that matter, in Iowa, Connecticut, North Dakota, and seven other states.

So this Earth Day -- Sunday -- I have a favor to ask: Take care of the last remaining wild places in my national forests, and I'll keep an eye on your monuments along the Mall in Washington.

We can't all live near the redwoods, Florida Keys, or Grand Canyon, anymore than we can crowd around the Liberty Bell, Jefferson Memorial, or Bunker Hill. So as a nation we have agreed to treat them with special care because they belong to all of us. These areas have been set aside and preserved for everyone to experience and enjoy whether they actually make the visits or not.

This was the motivation behind last year's decision by the U.S. Forest Service to preserve the last, wild, one-third of national forest lands across the country. Thanks to this policy deterring most roads, logging, mining and drilling, Americans from all states will be able to cross some 58 million unspoiled acres -- for hiking, camping, fishing, hunting, or simply being outdoors -- without ever being stopped by a single "No Trespassing" sign.

Federal regulations already allow access to over half of our national forest lands for companies engaged in drilling for gas and oil, logging, or mining. If we are to balance this commercial development we need to protect the remaining parts of the forests from industrial intrusion.

The conservation measure, years in the making but now suspended by the Bush administration pending a decision by May 4 on whether to support or sabotage the rule, helps assure that scenic rivers and streams running through these lands will be healthy enough to support stocks of fish, some of which are becoming scarce. And the protections ensure habitats capable of sustaining animal life, both for game hunters and wildlife enthusiasts.

It's true that some of us will never set foot in a national forest, but by the same token, not everyone will visit the National Air and Space Museum, the Cimmaron National Grassland in Kansas, or Volcano National Park in Hawaii. If, however, the Air and Space Museum hadn't been accorded its special status as a showcase for the nation's achievements in aviation and space exploration, one of Washington's favorite destinations would never attract the eight million visitors it does each year.

Residents of states with no national forests or national space museums depend on the government to protect both such places, along with seashores, wilderness areas and sites vital to our common history. It's a public trust. This guarantees the possibility that someone in Iowa today -- or his grandchild many years from now -- can experience not only locations of cultural importance but also the majestic wonders of the natural world, whenever they wish.

The decision to conserve the remaining wild lands was anything but capricious. In the early 1970s, the Forest Service identified 56 million acres of roadless areas and began a series of studies to determine the best public use of them. By 1990, 378,000 miles of roads had been built in national forests -- more than nine times as much as in the federal highway system -- at taxpayer expense and primarily for the benefit of logging, mining, and drilling interests.

Starting in 1998 with a proposed moratorium on road building, the Forest Service held more than 600 hearings and gathered 1.6 million comments. A national opinion poll in 1999 showed that a large majority (63 percent) of Americans favored a federal policy to protect the last unspoiled forest areas.

Earth Day offers the perfect opportunity to ask all citizens to protect their nearest national treasure, especially our fast-disappearing wild places.

Just as you may not come to Washington and feel awed by the Lincoln Memorial, I may not get to the national forests of Idaho, Oregon, or Montana. But who can be indifferent to these monuments? I have never been to Arizona's Tonto National Forest, but if I decide to go, I hope when I get there you'll have helped keep it unspoiled. Meanwhile, I'll do the same for you.

Jane Danowitz is director of the Heritage Forests Campaign,
a national coalition to protect national forests.

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