Since 1964, when the Wilderness Act became law, Congress has set aside some 35 million acres of national forest land as designated wilderness. The Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which Bill Clinton issued shortly before leaving office, protected even more national forest land—58.5 million acres—in a single day. But it was almost more of a symbolic act than a real change in national forest policy. George W. Bush was just days away from being inaugurated, and the rule—which put certain sections of national forest off-limits to road building, and therefore to most forms of logging or mining—looked unlikely to last for long.

But eight years later, the Clinton roadless rule is still in effect. Its survival is partly due to the legal skill of the conservation groups that fought for the rule in court. But most of the credit has to go to the Bush administration, which was surprisingly incompetent in its attempts to overturn the rule. Most notably, it didn't conduct an adequate environmental assessment of the much-weaker replacement rule it issued in 2005—a procedural lapse that caused judge Elizabeth LaPorte to strike down the new rule and reinstate the Clinton roadless rule. Despite continued legal wrangling, the Clinton rule is still in effect everywhere except Idaho and Alaska.

This election will determine whether that remains the case. John McCain has expressed his opposition to the roadless rule, and it's likely he'd learn from his predecessor's mistakes and do his legal homework before coming up with a replacement. Obama, by contrast, supports the rule. And a pro-roadless president plus pro-roadless majorities in the House and Senate would mean that the the Roadless Area Conservation Act, which would codify the roadless rule as statutory law, might finally have a decent chance of passing. If it did pass, the nation's roadless areas would finally achieve something close to permanent protection.

--Rob Inglis, High Country News