Roadless. The word is a lightning rod, for conservationists and developers alike. It's also produced a legal quagmire, with eight years of wrangling in court since President Bill Clinton established the "roadless rule" in 2001 to protect a few remaining pristine forests and President George W. Bush revoked it in his first year in office.
Bush's action was later declared illegal by U.S. District Judge Elizabeth LaPorte, who said the policy sidestepped environmental reviews required by federal law.
But the controversy continued, as did development of some "roadless" areas. Now, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has wisely ordered a one-year ban on road building, logging and gas and oil exploration in these 58 million acres of national forests across the country, including more than 4 million acres in Utah. Only Vilsack himself can approve any such activity during the ban.
The ban will provide much-needed breathing room for those on both sides of the debate and at least temporarily halt development that could cause irreparable harm to these backcountry treasures.
In the yearlong hiatus, the Department of Agriculture, which has jurisdiction over national forests, will formulate a new policy that will have to stand up to court review.
That's a much better approach than the wrongheaded one taken by the Bush White House which, in typical knee-jerk fashion, threw out the Clinton "roadless rule." By contrast, the Clinton rule was set after three years of scientific review, 600 local hearings and meetings, and more public comment -- more than 2.5 million favorable responses -- than any other federal environmental action.
Also, the rule rightly allowed temporary road construction necessary to fight wildfires, provide for public safety and keep forests healthy.
The Bush policy halted by LaPorte's ruling would have allowed governors to request roadless status for forests within their states. Or they could allow mining, logging and other activities that would destroy these special forests. They are special because devoid of human machines, they are some of the last truly wild places in the United States. Unfortunately, Gov. Jon Huntman Jr. planned to protect almost no forest lands in Utah.
But that protection is vital for wildlife, for pure water and for the quiet and solitude that forests provide to hunters, anglers, hikers and others who need to escape the noise, crowds and ugliness that pervade so much of the urban world.
Vilsack's policy should consider those natural values.