SEATTLE, Wash. - U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) is calling on the Bush Administration to hold public meetings and encourage public review of its proposed changes to the Roadless Forest Protection Rule before the 60-day comment period closes early next month. The rule currently protects more than 58 million acres of America's most pristine national forests from further development by oil, gas, timber and coal companies.

In a strongly worded letter to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, Cantwell said, "Despite the Department's commitment to an open and inclusive process, the Forest Service has not scheduled a single public meeting during this 60-day comment period. This stands in stark contrast to the 180 public meetings held during the comparable period of the initial rulemaking process, and would seem to drastically undercut the ability of the public to learn about the intent of this rulemaking, and to comment in a meaningful way."

Cantwell said that the Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which the Forest Service published in the Federal Register, establishes a 60-day comment period that seeks comments on general principles of local forest planning that will be used in determining the extent and scope of revisions to the Roadless Forest Protection Rule. That 60-day comment period ends September 10, 2001. So far, Cantwell said, the Forest Service has done almost nothing to let the public know this process is under way or to encourage public review and comment of the proposed changes. She said any proposal to change the rule should undergo the same level of public scrutiny as the rule itself did during the initial rulemaking process.

The Roadless Forest Protection Rule precludes new road construction on more than 58 million acres of public land, and does more than any previous measure to protect America's few remaining roadless forests from further development by oil, gas, timber and coal companies. The rule preserves open space for recreational uses, including hunting, fishing, mountain biking and snowmobiling; protects watersheds that are sources of clean drinking water; and keeps intact vital habitat for fish and wildlife.

"I support the Roadless Forest Protection Rule, and the long-term view it takes on preserving national forests for future generations," Cantwell said separately. "It is a reasoned approach, particularly given that the Forest Service already has 380,000 miles of roads on Forest Service property and that most of these roads are in disrepair. In fact, the Forest Service has an $8.4 billion road maintenance backlog.

"I am confident that competing uses for public lands could be better managed if we focus on improving the condition of existing roads on the millions of acres of forest lands that remain open to road building and leasing for timber, oil, gas and coal," Cantwell said.

Polls have shown that 67 percent of all Americans - including 58 percent of Republicans -strongly support the current protections the rule provides for roadless national forests and public watersheds. The process the Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture undertook to establish this rule in the first place included a total of 600 public meetings in local communities nationwide (180 of those were held during the comparable comment period during the initial rulemaking process) and 1.6 million public comments - the most extensive public outreach in the history of the National Environmental Policy Act. There were 60,000 comments from Washington state alone, and 96 percent of those favored strong protection for roadless national forests.

"In the interests of an informed comment process, I urge you to immediately take action to ensure that the Forest Service schedules public meetings. If the Department's goal is truly to allow for informed participation, the public must be able to learn how and why the Forest Service intends to modify this rule."