On Oct. 13, Bill Clinton made his way, by way of helicopter and SUV, to the George Washington forest in the Shenandoah Mountains, where he disclosed his plan to protect 40 million acres of roadless land in national forests across the country. Amid the ecstatic cheers of environmentalists bussed to the site by the National Audubon Society Clinton declared that, "in the end, we’re going to protect all this," gesturing as he spoke to the surrounding trees. The networks and New York Times offered respectful coverage, some billing it as the greatest act of land preservation since Teddy Roosevelt created the national forests.

Those cheering environmentalists should have been warned by Clinton’s means of transportation to the great event. The first great flaw in his plan is that it appears to prohibit road-building, but not logging. These days, helicopter logging is becoming increasingly common as a way of extracting the trees from the cut-over terrain to the nearest available road. Logging won’t be banned it seems. Nor will livestock grazing, mining or dirt bikes. Even on its face, the plan falls short of protecting all roadless areas.

Steve Kelly, a feisty green organizer in Montana, had it right when he said of the plan, "The president tried to redefine sex, now, he’s trying to redefine wilderness." There are around 60 million acres of unexploited forest under federal supervision, and Clinton’s plan applies to only 40 million of them. More than half the area covered by the Clinton plan is composed of "rocks and ice," with no trees.

By contrast, the 20 million acres that have been excluded are mostly forested terrain. So, it’s scarcely surprising that Patti Rodgers, spokesperson for the Willamette National Forest, for decades the top timber-producing forest in the country, commented on the plan that it would have "very little" effect on logging in that forest, an assessment that was foreshadowed by Clinton himself in his speech when he said, "It’s very important to point out that we are not trying to turn our national forests into museums."

The Forest Service calculates that under the plan, timber harvests will decline by only about 28 million board feet. The annual take from national forests is 4 billion board feet. Another huge defect in the plan is the apparent omission from its purview of the largest (and most ecologically intact) national forest in the country, the Tongass in Alaska, thus, deferring to the political power of Sen. Ted Stevens. This brings us to the real intent of the plan, which has little to do with preservation and everything to do with the politics of the next 13 months.

The administration could protect all these same acres, and more, by simple executive order. But instead, the Clinton plan calls for the development of an environmental impact statement that is not scheduled to be completed before the end of next year. Now, federal courts have ruled exactly as common sense would dictate: that such impact statements are not needed in the case of straightforward preservation.

So, what is afoot? The long process of review -- probably 18 months -- means that the executor of the plan will be the next president. What better way to congeal support for Al Gore, with leaders of the major green groups presaging a forest holocaust if George W. Bush wins the White House? The announcement of the plan comes at a moment when Gore sorely needs to buttress his credibility with environmentalists. It’s only a few weeks since Gore said he felt "personally wounded" by the decision of Friends of the Earth to endorse Gore’s rival for the Democratic nomination, Bill Bradley. Clinton took good care in his speech in the Shenandoah Mountains to emphasize that the plan’s architect was Gore, along with George Frampton, head of the government’s Council on Environmental Quality.

Frampton (the man Gore asked to be his lawyer amid the campaign funding scandal) was once head of the Wilderness Society, with Richard Hoppe as his right-hand man. These days, Hoppe is one of leaders of the Heritage Forests Campaign, the group that has most actively promoted the roadless area initiative, although the word "group" is somewhat misleading, since the Heritage Forests Campaign has no membership, but only a substantial staff, paid for by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which committed $1.4 million to the roadless area campaign.

Thus, we have Pew, the richest and most influential foundation in the environmental sector, creating the Heritage Forest "group" to advance a politically motivated initiative in an election year. Staffers of the Heritage Forest Campaign have been telling grass-roots environmental organizers to refrain from public criticism of the plan. "It is VITAL," ran an Oct. 2 e-mail from Heritage Forest to grass-roots activists in the Pacific Northwest, "that we respond immediately to early news reports of this effort with praise and consensus ... if not, we jeopardize the whole deal."

So, if the plan is to be called Clinton’s green legacy, it will be in scarcely flattering sense of a legacy that testifies to what the mainstream environmental movement has become: a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic National Committee. As Oregon Democratic rep Peter diFazio put it in the wake of Clinton’s Shenandoah speech, "I would that forest policy is too serious to be the theme of the day in some attempt to boost Gore’s flagging presidential campaign, which is what I think it’s all about."

Alexander Cockburn is a columnist for The Nation and author of a syndicated column, essays and books. The Times Literary Supplement called him “the most gifted polemicist now writing in English.” To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.