WASHINGTON - In a major victory for environmentalists, Idaho Sen. Larry Craig dropped plans to try to halt President Clinton's proposal for protecting 43 million acres of roadless forests.
Craig said he had the votes to pass his amendment, but withdrew it to allow the courts to decide whether the Clinton administration violated open meeting laws by discussing the initiative with environmentalists before it was announced. There are two pending court cases - one in Idaho and the one in Washington - on the issue.
''Several interests asked me not to jeopardize the court activity,'' Craig said.
Jim Lyons, the Agriculture Department undersecretary who oversees the Forest Service, said he believes Craig bowed to political pressure.
''Senator Craig knows there's tremendous popular support for the (roadless) proposal,'' Lyons said. ''Senator Craig is on the wrong side of the issue.''
Clinton is trying to use administrative rulemaking to prevent road building and other development on more than one-fifth of all federal forests. His draft plan, announced in May, sets broad criteria for logging, grazing and recreational activities, and leaves it up to local foresters to decide whether roads should be banned on parcels of 5,000 acres or less.
Environmentalists call the effort a crowning achievement of the Clinton presidency and one of the most important conservation moves of the last century.
''It is making a decision on what to do with the last undeveloped, unroaded wild forest land in this country. It is a very, very big conservation initiative,'' said Debbie Sease, legislative director for the Sierra Club.
But Western Republicans, timber companies and recreation interests say the move would unfairly limit access to public lands and hurt local economies. They denounce the rulemaking as an end run around Congress, since the plan can be implemented without lawmakers' approval.
Craig's proposal would have delayed Clinton's plan until after a panel reviewed the effort and made recommendations to improve it. Environmentalists said Craig was trying to put off the plan until Clinton leaves office, with the hope that Republican George W. Bush is elected and scraps the initiative.
Craig initially offered the amendment on the Senate floor to a $15.5 billion Interior Department appropriations bill, calling the roadless plan the ''most slipshod rulemaking effort that I've seen and the worst example in the last 20 years by any federally elected officials.''
But Craig then allowed Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., to replace the amendment with a less controversial proposal to reduce fire risk near fast-growing metropolitan areas - especially areas of the West such as Santa Fe, N.M.
The Domenici proposal, co-sponsored by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., grants $240 million to the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to use existing authority and cooperative agreements to remove timber and brush on public lands that are the greatest threat of catching fire.
The replacement amendment passed on a unanimous voice vote.
A final vote on the interior bill was scheduled for Tuesday.
On the same measure, the Senate voted 73-27 against a proposal by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., that would have transferred $7 million to American Indian health programs from the $105 million the bill contains for next year's National Endowment for the Arts budget. The House has approved $98 million for the agency, $52 million less than Clinton wants but the same as this year.
On the Net: Forest Service roadless initiative: http://roadless.fs.fed.us/