Environmental groups are claiming victory after President Clinton and the United States Forest Service announced a plan Jan. 4 to protect 58 million acres of roadless national forest from road building and clear cutting.

The California Student Public Research Group (CalPIRG) at UCSB sent 600 signatures to Clinton and made 200 phone calls to lobby for passage of the rule, which affects over 4 million acres in California and forests in 37 other states, including the 17-million acre Tongass National Forest in Alaska.

“What has just happened is one of the most monumental conservation acts in the century,” CalPIRG Campus Organizer Jennette Gayer said. “Basically, we’ve just created a new set of National Parks.”

Congressional Republicans and two state governors have already vowed to fight the rule. Alaska’s two senators told the Washington Post they would challenge it in Congress or in the courts, while Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles said he would file a suit to prevent the rule from applying to the Tongass.

“Alaskans are tired of being double-crossed by the federal government with false promises of public involvement that are subsequently overturned by executive policy actions from Washington,” Knowles told the Los Angeles Times on Saturday.

The final environmental impact report from the Forest Service estimated that the rule would decrease timber harvests in the Tongass by 95 percent, and cause the loss of 400 jobs. However, only 5 percent of the total timber from federal forests comes from roadless forests, and the Forest Service will provide $72 million over six years to soften the blow of job losses.

Gayer said CalPIRG is already gearing up to keep the Forest Service rule in place.

“Definitely one of the biggest jobs that we’re going to be facing is making sure this doesn’t get rolled back,” Gayer said. “There’s already talk of trying to adjust it and compromise it, so one of the things we’ll be doing is fighting to make sure it stays.”

While the rule’s enemies have said Clinton was motivated by last-minute plans to leave a legacy, CalPIRG Organizing Director Dave Rosenfeld attributed the new rule to the strong public input. He said Clinton received over 1.5 million comments – the largest public comment on any proposal in U.S. history – calling for maximum regulation.

“It would be very hard not to [impose the strictest regulations] because it was such a clear public mandate, and the environmental community did an outstanding job making that exceptionally clear,” Rosenfeld said. “Something like 80 percent of the public was in support of the thing.”

The Forest Service began examining possibilities for revamping its plans to protect the national forests two years ago, and presented Clinton with a proposal in November. During this period, Gayer said, the environmental community changed the focus from “saving a couple of acres” to a broader plan.

“Through all the public comments, through all the organizing, we’ve made the Forest Service clearly see that this is something America wants,” she said.

The Forest Service plan included a stewardship proposal, which allows thinning out forests to protect against forest fires. Gayer called stewardship a “slippery slope,” because it allows cutting down trees. The report also did not make provisions for the Tongass, which covers 17 million acres in Alaska. Clinton’s plan, which will be the final rule unless legal challenges are upheld, includes protection for the Tongass and eliminates the stewardship proposal.

“It’s a victory that we were shocked by and really pleased by,” Gayer said. “While we thought that we would definitely win something, we didn’t expect it to be as great as it is.”