PORTLAND, Ore. - The timber industry and environmentalists faced off Tuesday over President Clinton's proposal to ban new roads in 43 million acres of national forests across the country in order to protect clean water, outdoor recreation and fish and wildlife habitat.
During what may prove to be the largest of 300 public hearings being held around the country, the timber industry urged the U.S. Forest Service to extend the public comment period on the proposal by six months.
Timber industry officials complained they have had trouble obtaining copies of the full 700-page draft environmental impact statement, and need more time to analyze it.
Frank Gladis, of the Independent Forest Products Association, called the hearings a ''sham'' and said Vice President Al Gore's statements supporting the proposal indicate the decision has already been made.
Environmentalists asked the Forest Service to adopt even stronger protections by banning logging as well as new roads in wild areas, including the Tongass National Forest in Alaska in the proposal, and extending the protections to areas of less than 5,000 acres.
''I don't want to tell my children stories about old growth forests that used to be there,'' said Sybil Ackerman, a regional representative of the Sierra Club. ''I want to take my children to see them.''
Speakers representing the timber industry argued the proposed roadless policy would make it impossible to improve the health of sick forests and to fight fires like the one that devastated Los Alamos, N.M.
Environmentalists countered that the healthiest forests in the nation are those that have not been subject to logging or road-building, and that the primary reason for devastating forest fires has been keeping natural fires from doing their job in the ecosystem.
The public hearing was held at the Portland Convention Center, where Clinton convened the 1993 Forest Summit that failed to bring peace in the battle over logging Northwest national forests.
A final environmental impact statement on Clinton's new proposed roadless policy is expected around Thanksgiving.
Faced with 386,000 miles of roads built primarily to haul logs, but lacking the money to maintain them as logging revenues have declined, the Forest Service released a draft environmental impact statement last May. It proposed banning new roads in 43 million acres of national forests.
About 60 million of the 192 million acres of national forests are considered wild and undeveloped.
The ban would protect water quality, as well as fish and wildlife habitat, the Forest Service has said.
The timber industry is dissatisfied at being pushed out of still more national forest, which contributes only 5 percent of the nation's timber supply.
Environmentalists are upset that the proposal would still allow logging in roadless areas, where logs could be hauled out by helicopter or special yarding systems. They also don't like the proposal's lack of immediate protection for the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, the nation's largest, or roadless areas of less than 5,000 acres.
The roadless policy represents the latest in a series of battles stretching back to the early 1980s, when environmentalists chained themselves to bulldozers and won a series of court battles that ultimately led to an 80 percent reduction in logging on Northwest national forests to protect habitat for fish and wildlife.
Clinton's Forest Summit, intended to bring peace, brought only an uneasy truce, and the battle has raged on in treetop sit-ins, courtrooms and the halls of Congress.