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Profile: Forester who opposed roadless plan tapped to head BLM

BOISE, Idaho (AP) ” When President Clinton proposed sweeping protection for millions of acres of roadless national forest during his final weeks in office, James Caswell was front and center in a mutiny of forest supervisors.

To Caswell, nominated by President Bush last week to be the next director of the Bureau of Land Management, Clinton’s bold initiative declaring huge tracts of wilderness off limits to logging and mining was ill-conceived and heavy-handed.

At the time, Caswell was in charge of the Clearwater National Forest in Idaho and Montana, and in a memo to his boss condemned the plan, suggesting, among other flaws, it ignored a golden rule for making policy on public forests: What do locals think?

“I totally understand the issue that public lands are owned by all people, and embrace that,” Caswell told The Associated Press. “But for the people who live, work and play in the public lands that serve as a backdrop out their kitchen window … when someone else comes in and says we are going to change forever how you access and play on them, that’s just not right.”

On the advice of Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, Bush named Caswell, a longtime forester and Vietnam veteran, to lead the BLM, an agency often at the center some of the West’s most bitter dustups over oil and gas drilling, endangered species, hunting and access for off-road enthusiasts.

If approved by the Senate, Caswell, 61, would replace Kathleen Clarke, who resigned in February. Jim Hughes has served as acting director since then.

For the last 6 1/2 years, Caswell has led Idaho’s Office of Species Conservation, where he drafted the state’s plans for managing wolves and roadless wilderness. Each was crafted after Caswell organized dozens of public hearings statewide, and each has won wide ” though not universal ” support and helped sway a faction of conservative lawmakers initially opposed to creating the office seven years ago.

Still, some argue Caswell’s plan for Idaho’s roadless lands concedes too much to industry.

“The Idaho plan would open up areas of the state that the Clinton rule sealed off,” said Marv Hoyt, state director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. “My fear is he will always come down on the side of industry in those types of decisions.”

During the Bush administration, the BLM has come under growing criticism for developing oil and gas production at the expense of hunters and wildlife habitat.

An avid elk and bird hunter, river rafter and fly fisherman, Caswell says he embraces the need to exploit all possible resources at home to counterbalance demand and the rising price of foreign oil. With confirmation hearings pending, Caswell declined to comment specifically how intended balance energy with other uses and interests.

“We shouldn’t just walk away from developing those resources,” Caswell said. “If the objective is to develop the resource, most of the time I think we can find ways to solve any problems that may be created.”

But for now, environmentalists say with the credibility Caswell has earned in Idaho and ticking clock on the Bush administration, there are no immediate plans for a confirmation fight.

“Dare I say he’s not on my team,” said Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League. “But I think he has won a hard earned respect on both ends of the spectrum here. It’s also a basic reality that given who is in the White House, things could be a lot worse.”

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