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PAINTER, SPARE THAT ROCK

Most people can appreciate the eloquence in Joyce Kilmer's work, "Trees," which begins, "I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree." Nature is indeed poetic.

All of which raises the question: What kind of fractured verse is the Forest Service trying to write?Officials from the service say they have been painting rocks along the nation's scenic highways to make sure they look natural enough for passing motorists.

No, this isn't April Fools' Day and we're not talking about the latest slapstick comedy starring Jim Carrey (although the title "Dumb and Dumber" comes to mind). It's not that funny. Instead, it's your tax dollars at work.

The practice received attention last week when Rep. Jack Metcalf, R-Wash., pressured officials to back away from a "rock colorization" project in the Cascade Mountain range.

A recent highway project there has exposed rocks that look like they've been underground for awhile. Forest Service officials said nature could take up to five years to endow those rocks with that weathered look motorists find so attractive. They were planning to apply a liquid coat of iron and manganese to hurry the process.

If the Forest Service is serious about redoing the great outdoors, why stop with spraying rocks? Why not import Hollywood special-effect experts who could install props that look like the real thing? Why not liven up pine trees that turn brown during dry summers? For that matter, why not hire decorators to make the great outdoors more attractive?

Of course, those ideas are silly. Forest Service official might not be able to defend them with straight faces, the way they do rock painting.

"Treatment of freshly exposed rock faces is one method to reduce and/or mitigate the visual impacts associated with the highway project," a Forest Service district manager said in a letter. It's also a good way to blow about $37,000, which is what the Cascade project was expected to cost.

This isn't a new idea. It has happened before. The rocks along a new Mount St. Helens Highway in Washington, for example, are a little prettier than nature intended.

Frankly, one wonders what color the Forest Service would paint the rocks it must think taxpayers have in their heads. Rock coloring is a waste of money, and the Forest Service should stop it.