Clinton's Forest 'Legacy' Unlikely to Be Reversed by Bush Allies

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Protected: Less clearcutting like this in Alaska's Tongass National Forest

Take that, Gale Norton!

Norton, Bush's controversial nominee for secretary of the interior, has a reputation that makes environmentalists and land conservationists very nervous. And while her confirmation to the post is far from certain, President Clinton is already sending her a not-so-subtle message: Keep your hands off public lands.

On Friday, with a nod to the influence of Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir and Al Gore, Clinton signed an executive order protecting one third of U.S. forest land from logging and road construction. The order, which affects 58 million acres in 39 states, is the most aggressive protection act since Jimmy Carter designated huge swaths of Alaskan wilderness off-limits to developers. Environmental lobbyists, already pleased with Clinton's record of land protection, are thrilled by his latest move. "This is a great moment in history," Ken Rait, director of the Heritage Forest Campaign, told the New York Times. "It's something for which our children will express gratitude."

There are, of course, vehement objections to the far-reaching order, which many see as the President's bid to hijack the legacy created by Teddy Roosevelt's use of similar executive orders at the turn of the century. Others accuse the President of last-gasp politicking in an attempt to boost his own profile on way or another — if the floundering Mideast peace talks won't give cement his legacy, critics gripe, perhaps he thinks this move will.

Legislators representing western states have already begun rumbling about congressional action to overturn Clinton's action — although a reversal would require complex and time-consuming machinations and would undoubtedly run into violent and public opposition from environmental organizations. Press reps for President-elect Bush, who expressed opposition to a similar proposal during this year's campaign, would only say that he will carefully evaluate each of his predecessor's presidential orders. Spokesman Ari Fleischer took this veiled swipe at Clinton on Friday: "We will not comment on some of these last-minute executive orders that he is pursuing."

But according to Craig Allin, professor of political science at Iowa's Cornell College and an expert in public land management, this particular action could remain unscathed at the federal level. "The situation that will confront the new Congress and new President, should they choose to fight this order, is difficult. The deed is done, and undoing it would require extensive and complicated processes involving scientific studies and garnering public opinion," says Allin. "You'd have to be pretty committed to that. I'm sure this protection action is something Bush wouldn't have undertaken on his own, but I wouldn't be surprised if he doesn't reverse it."

Others who oppose Clinton's actions are not quite as interested in diplomatic equivocation. "Idaho will sue," Governor Dirk Kempthorne told the Times, calling the order "an absolutely flawed piece of public policy that has stiffed the states." Kempthorne, along with representatives of the energy and timber industries, claims the order would strangle domestic resources and jobs, and would necessitate costly importation of critical energy and building supplies.

But while there are certainly legal avenues of protest available to Kempthorne, says Allin, the governor is fighting an uphill battle — historically, such arguments don't hold much water. "The state would need to show there were procedural problems in the process — and the process is complicated." The Clinton administration undoubtedly made every effort to safeguard against a legal challenge, adds Allin. "Generally, states and counties who've tried to assert independent authority against this kind of federal government management almost always lose in the courts."