PHOENIX - The Clinton administration proposed a ban on building roads in 43 million acres of roadless federal forests Tuesday - a decision that prompted complaints from both environmentalists and timber industry officials.
Environmentalists said the plan should do more to protect National Forest System land from activities such as logging and off-road vehicles. Timber industry groups complained the proposal limits their access to forests.
''It's another step toward zero harvest,'' said Jim Geisinger, president of the Northwest Forestry Association in Portland, Ore.
About 900 of the 1,400 miles of roads planned on National Forest System land over for the next five years would be knocked off by this proposal, said Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck. Some 300 miles of those planned roads for timber harvest would no longer be built under the proposal, he said.
Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said in a conference call from Washington, D.C., that the primary purpose of the plan was to restrict road building and was never intended to be an ''anti-logging'' rule.
The plan sets broad criteria for what activities to allow in forests but would have local officials make the final call. The plan also would leave it up to local foresters to decide whether roads should be banned in smaller forest parcels of 5,000 acres or less.
Environmentalists said the plan is full of loopholes because it does not prohibit logging in roadless areas and exempts the nation's largest forest - the Tongass in Alaska - from the ban on road building.
The entire final version of the roadless plan will be called into question if it exempts the Tongass, said Marty Hayden, legislative director for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund.
''The plan did some things but did not nearly go far enough,'' Hayden said.
Gary Erickson, manager of Big Horn Lumber Co. of Laramie, Wyo., admits that some areas could still be accessed and logged without roads, but said using helicopters and cable systems makes it more expensive and decreases the Forest Service and counties' revenue.
Banning roads in roadless areas will also hurt fire prevention, said W. Henson Moore, president of the American Forest & Paper Association.
About 60 million acres of the 192 million acres of federal forests are considered wild, or undeveloped. The rest of the acreage, governed by the Forest Service, is host to a wide range of activities, including logging, camping, skiing, mining and off-road-vehicle use.
President Clinton, who last October called for the Forest Service to develop a plan to protect ''some of the last, best, unprotected wildland anywhere in our nation,'' said the proposal was an important first step toward his goal of lasting protection for ''priceless lands.''
But Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, called the roadless plan a ''sloppy farce'' that will be thrown out by the courts.
''It will now be up to the next Congress and administration to fix legislatively what the current administration has horribly mangled,'' Craig said in a statement.
The forest protection plan requires no congressional action, relying on regulations to be issued by the Forest Service after a detailed environmental review and public comments.
The proposal could gain final approval at the end of the year, just before Clinton leaves office. But environmentalists expect Republicans in Congress to try to delay the rulemaking until after Clinton's term. Court challenges from industry groups against the rule are likely.
On the Net:
Forest Service roadless area Web site: http://roadless.fs.fed.us/