Appeals court supports roadless rule for national forests

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday upheld the Clinton administration’s “roadless rule” affecting more than 50 million acres of National Forest lands. The decision overturned a 2008 ruling by a federal court in Wyoming, which had blocked enforcement of the rule.  

Bill Clinton’s administration established the Roadless Area Conservation Rule in January 2001, just before George W. Bush was inaugurated. The rule spawned lawsuits in several states. The Bush administration sought to allow development of roadless areas in some states, but the 9th Circuit Court of appeals rejected the Bush approach in an August 2009 ruling. At that time, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack praised the ruling and confirmed that President Barack Obama’s administration was committed to defending the Clinton rule in court. (The USDA oversees the U.S. Forest Service.) Vilsack also indicated that depending on the outcome of litigation in federal court, the Obama administration might use a new rulemaking process to protect roadless areas.

The state of Wyoming and an arm of the mining industry had persuaded a U.S. district court to vacate the roadless rule on the following grounds:

Wyoming and the Colorado Mining Association argued the rule violates the 1964 Wilderness Act. Wyoming attorneys also argued the definition of roadless lands is synonymous with wilderness lands. The 1964 Wilderness Act states only Congress can designate wilderness lands.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and environmental groups said there are differences between the designations. Roadless areas allow for some mineral development and more recreational activities, such as bicycles and ATVs, which the wilderness category forbids, they said.

Conflicting federal court rulings have upheld and overturned the road-building ban. The California-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out a 2005 Bush administration policy that opened some of the roadless areas to potential development.

Two other legal actions to protect roadless areas are pending, including a lawsuit contesting application of the roadless rule to national forests in Alaska, and a suit challenging a separate, less protective rule that applies only to areas of Idaho.

Officials representing the state of Wyoming have not decided whether to appeal Friday’s ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear how the latest court decision will affect the state of Colorado’s effort to adopt a separate policy on protecting national forest land:

Nothing in the decision appears to prohibit state-specific rules for protecting national forests. And Colorado natural resources officials have developed their own, nuanced, tiered-protection plan for protecting 4.2 million acres of roadless national forest in the state.

It would give top-tier protection to about 13 percent of the land protected under the Clinton-era national roadless rule, which blocks most road-building on 4.4 million of the 14.5 million acres of national forest in Colorado. The Colorado proposal would make exceptions for mining, logging and ski-area expansion.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is expected to decide by early next year on the fate of that approach.

Environmental organizations are urging Vilsack to reject “a flawed Colorado plan to manage national forests there, developed as an ‘insurance policy’ when the national rule’s legal status was in doubt,” in the words of Jane Danowitz, director of the Pew Environment Group’s U.S. public lands program.

The following joint press release from Earthjustice, The Wilderness Society, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, Wyoming Outdoor Council, and the Sierra Club provides more background on the roadless rule and its benefits. However, it may be premature to declare that the rule’s legality is now “settled.” The U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t accept many appeals of circuit court rulings, but if Wyoming does appeal this decision, I wouldn’t rule out a sympathetic hearing from the high court. Chief Justice John Roberts and his four conservative allies love to stand up for states’ rights when that position aligns with corporate interests.

October 21, 2011

Federal Court Reinstates Roadless Rule

Landmark Ruling on Wild National Forest Protections

DENVER – The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a long-awaited, landmark decision today, securing critical legal protections for nearly 50 million acres of pristine National Forest lands.  These forests  offer outstanding opportunities for hunting, fishing, and hiking, produce clean water for thousands of communities nationwide, and provide irreplaceable habitat for imperiled wildlife species including grizzly bears, lynx, and Pacific salmon.  The appellate court reversed a lower court decision and affirmed the validity of the Roadless Rule – a 2001 federal rule that protects wild national forests and grasslands from new road building, logging, and development.  

The appellate court ruled against the State of Wyoming and industry intervenors and in favor of conservation groups, the Forest Service, and the States of California, Oregon, and Washington.  This decision formally ends an injunction against the Rule’s enforcement imposed by a Wyoming federal district court in 2008.

“The public forests we’ve fought so hard to protect are now safe,” said Tim Preso, an Earthjustice attorney representing the conservation groups.  “All Americans can now know that a key part of our nation’s natural heritage won’t be destroyed.”

The 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule was the product of the most comprehensive rulemaking process in the nation’s history, including more than 2 million comments from members of the public, hundreds of public hearings and open houses, and a detailed environmental review.  The rule came under relentless attack by logging and resource extraction interests, certain states, and the Bush administration.

“This is a great victory for the American people who have spoken out, time and again and in record numbers, for protection of these wild public lands,” said Mike Francis with The Wilderness Society.

“Roadless areas protect our rivers and streams – protect our salmon, trout, drinking water,” said Mary Scurlock of Pacific Rivers Council.  “The Roadless Rule is common-sense, and finally the question of its legality is settled.”

“Roadless areas are valuable and irreplaceable places for hikers, campers, hunters, anglers, and families; they protect our water supplies; they provide room for wildlife to live and raise their young; and they will be increasingly important as safe havens for plants and animals in the face of rising temperatures and other impacts of climate change,” said Frances Hunt, Director of the Sierra Club’s Resilient Habitats Campaign.

“Roadless Areas represent the last of our wild and natural National Forest lands, providing multiple benefits including outstanding wildlife habitat, important supplies of clean water, and some of the best recreation lands in the country,” said Erik Molvar, Wildlife Biologist with Biodiversity Conservation Alliance of Laramie, Wyoming.

Lisa McGee of Wyoming Outdoor Council stressed the importance of this decision to her state.  “The people of Wyoming love the outdoors – we’re hunters, fishermen, hikers, and campers — and roadless areas give us the best recreation anywhere. This decision ensures that our outdoor heritage will be safeguarded.”

Earthjustice has led the legal defense of the Roadless Rule since the first attacks under the Bush/Cheney administration.  Against all odds, this critical legal work has kept the Roadless Rule alive and prevented destruction of our national forests’ last great wild places.

Now, conservation, faith, and recreation groups trust that the Obama administration will support and enforce the 2001 Roadless Rule as the law of the land, including defending its protections for all 58.5 million acres of roadless lands in the country.  That includes national forests in Alaska, currently subject to a separate legal challenge and national forests in Idaho, whose roadless area protections were weakened in 2008.

As a candidate, President Obama said:

“Road construction in national forests can harm fish and wildlife habitats while polluting local lakes, rivers, and streams.  The Roadless Area Conservation Rule-which was made on the basis of extensive citizen input-protects 58.5 million acres of national forest from such harmful building.  I will be proud to support and defend it.”

– Sen. Barack Obama, LCV questionnaire http://presidentialprofiles08….

Background on today’s decision

In 2008, the State of Wyoming sued the Forest Service for a second time to invalidate the Roadless Rule (the rule had been reinstated by a federal court in California in 2006).  A Wyoming federal district court enjoined the Rule; Earthjustice and the Forest Service appealed that injunction to the 10th Circuit.  The 10th Circuit today joins the 9th Circuit in finding the Roadless Rule legal.

In this appeal to the 10th Circuit, Earthjustice represented Wyoming Outdoor Council, The Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, Pacific Rivers Council, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Audubon Society, and Defenders of Wildlife.  The States of California, Oregon, and Washington submitted legal papers in support of the Roadless Rule and the conservation groups’ appeal.

Two other legal actions to protect roadless areas remain pending: (1) a lawsuit challenging application of the Roadless Rule to national forests in Alaska, and (2) a lawsuit challenging a separate, less protective rule that applies only to federal roadless areas in Idaho.

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