Roadless forests upheld
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – A federal judge reinstated a ban Wednesday on road construction in nearly 50 million acres of pristine wilderness, overturning a Bush administration rule that could have cleared the way for more commercial activity in national forests.
U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Laporte sided with states and environmental groups that sued the U.S. Forest Service after it reversed President Clinton’s “Roadless Rule” prohibiting commercial logging, mining and other development on 58.5 million acres of national forest in 38 states and Puerto Rico.
After a series of legal battles in California and Wyoming, the Bush administration last year replaced the Clinton rule with a process requiring states to petition the federal government to block new roads.
Laporte said the administration violated federal law when it reversed Clinton’s road ban without conducting the necessary environmental studies. Administration lawyers had argued that an environmental review was not required because the change did not directly impact the land.
“This is fantastic news for millions of Americans who have consistently told the Forest Service that they want these last wild areas of public land protected,” said Kristen Boyles, an attorney for Earthjustice, which represented a coalition of 20 environmental groups.
Laporte did not, however, reinstate a ban on road construction and logging on 9.3 million acres of the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, which President Bush exempted from the Roadless Rule in 2003.
Bush administration attorneys were reviewing the ruling to decide whether to appeal to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, said Dave Tenny, deputy undersecretary for the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service.
“We’re disappointed that the very good work we’ve been doing with the states in good faith has been disrupted,” Tenny said, noting that a number of states had already submitted petitions to ban new roads.
Representatives of the timber industry denounced the decision, saying it would leave roadless areas vulnerable to catastrophic wildfires because firefighters could not access blazes in remote forests.
Chris West, vice president of the Portland-based American Forest Industry Council, said states should be allowed to decide how to best manage and protect their forests.
“The states were given a level playing field and equal partnership in the decision-making process,” West said. “This lawsuit and this decision is all about politics.”
Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal said his state would seek to revive a lawsuit that led a federal judge in Cheyenne to strike down the Clinton rule in 2003. That ruling was rendered moot when the Bush administration issued its own rule.
“Obviously, this decision in a federal district court in California tends to resurrect an issue which had been deemed moot,” Freudenthal said.
After holding 600 public meetings over three years and receiving 1 million public comments urging forest protection, Clinton issued the Roadless Area Conservation Rule just days before he left office in January 2001.
The rule protected nearly a third of the country’s 192 million acres of national forest land. About 97 percent of that land is in 12 western states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
Despite the judge’s ruling, logging would likely continue in two regions of Oregon – Mike’s Gulch and Blackberry on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest – where timber sales were approved after the rule was changed, said Mike Carrier, natural resources adviser to Gov. Ted Kulongoski.
All the trees slated for cutting on Mike’s Gulch have been cut and are being hauled out by helicopter, and loggers have been at work in the Blackberry area for two weeks, said Rogue River-Siskiyou spokeswoman Patty Burel.
Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, one of the plaintiffs, called Wednesday’s ruling a “a huge victory for America’s last remaining wild forests.”
“These are increasingly scarce unspoiled places,” Pope said, “that provide some of the highest quality fish and wildlife habitat, backcountry recreation and clean water supplies in the country.”
Associated Press Writer Jeff Barnard contributed to this report from Grants Pass, Ore.
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