Ban on Roads in Pristine National Forests Reinstated
A federal appeals court has reinstated a Clinton administration ban on road building in 58.5 million acres of remote national forest land.
For the time being, at least, the 2-1 ruling by a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel of judges protects some of the most pristine public forest land in the country from logging, mining and development.
It could also block hotly contested Bush administration logging plans to reduce the wildfire threat in California’s Sierra Nevada and other parts of the West, according to environmentalists.
The ruling, announced Thursday, lifts an injunction against the ban that had been imposed by a federal district court in Boise, Idaho, and returns the case to that court.
While the roadless rule is back in effect, it faces legal challenges in several courts around the country. The attorney general-elect of Idaho vowed Thursday that his state would vigorously pursue its lawsuit against the road-building ban.
“We think it’s a very bad decision. It’s bad for Idaho’s jobs and economy,” said Lawrence Wasden, who takes office in January and is currently chief of staff for the incumbent attorney general. Wasden said his office will immediately seek a review by the full 9th Circuit and will ask for another stay of the roadless rule.
Should a second appeal fail, the case could then be taken to the U.S. Supreme Court or returned to the district court for trial.
Environmentalists, who have suffered a number of forest policy defeats as the Bush administration attempts to weaken logging curbs adopted under Clinton, were elated by the appeals opinion.
“This decision blunts one of the major thrusts of this administration’s three-pronged assault on our national forests -- undoing roadless areas, undermining forest management regulations and boosting logging under the guise of fire protection,” said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, one of the environmental groups who intervened in the case.
“Again and again, the White House has made a strategic decision to side with the timber industry against the overwhelming desires of the American people, and the higher court just told them they picked the wrong side,” Schlickeisen said.
Plaintiffs in the case -- including Idaho, several snowmobile clubs, the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho and timber industry giant Boise Cascade Corp. -- claimed the federal government had failed to follow the National Environmental Policy Act when preparing the roadless rules.
With strong language, the San Francisco panel rejected that argument.
Finding that the U.S. Forest Service had provided the public with extensive information on the rule and allowed for meaningful public debate and comment, the appeals court concluded that the plaintiffs did not have a strong chance of prevailing in the case and therefore an injunction should not have been issued.
“The district court proceeded on an incorrect legal premise, applied the wrong standard for injunction and abused its discretion in issuing a preliminary injunction,” the appeals court wrote.
Although the Bush administration has repeatedly said it supports the principles behind the roadless rule, environmentalists argue that its actions point to a different set of priorities.
When the administration failed to appeal District Judge Edward J. Lodge’s injunction blocking the roadless policy, critics charged that the White House had effectively abandoned a regulation not to its liking. Moreover, the 9th Circuit cited the case’s “unusual procedural setting,” in which the defendant, the Bush administration, chose not to defend itself.
Responding to the appeals court’s decision, U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey said Thursday that the agency would allow the roadless regulations to take effect.
“The Forest Service is committed to protecting and managing roadless values and considers inventoried roadless areas an important component of the national forest system,” Rey said in a statement. “Over the last year, we have been working toward a responsible and balanced approach that fairly addresses concerns raised by states, tribes and local communities impacted by the rule, and incorporates the department’s May 4, 2001, principles of informed decision making: working together; protecting forests, communities, homes and property from fire; and protecting access to property.”
However, the ban could interfere with the Forest Service’s plans to aggressively thin areas of national forests considered vulnerable to fire. Environmentalists and some forest scientists have argued that the plans are thinly veiled designs to give logging companies access to some of the oldest and most commercially valuable timber.
“Despite the ban, I will not be surprised if the Forest Service pushes ahead with its plans,” said Neil Lawrence, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the groups that appealed the injunction imposed by the Idaho court. “Where they push ahead, they will be challenged,” Lawrence said.
The road building ban was one of the more contentious environmental regulations of the Clinton administration. Timber and recreation interests have bitterly attacked it, while conservation groups just as emphatically endorsed it as a badly needed protection for remaining pristine national forest land.
Democratic members of Congress said Thursday that the ruling will force the Bush administration to abide by that protection.
“This ruling tells the Bush administration that it cannot arbitrarily bypass rules it doesn’t like; rules must be written in the light of day and with input from all of the public,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.).
Rep. Nick J. Rahall II of West Virginia, ranking Democrat on the House Resources Committee, added: “Today’s 9th Circuit decision serves as welcome news for the American people who treasure our national forests. As the court concludes, the Clinton administration complied with environmental laws and fully involved the public in developing its landmark and popular policy to protect the remaining pristine national forest lands.
“By contrast, the Bush administration -- which failed to appeal or defend the Clinton roadless policy in the litigation -- is aggressively seeking to reduce and even eliminate the public’s role in national forest management. The sad reality is that national forest roadless areas are still not safe from the current administration’s chain saws.”
Marty Hayden, a lobbyist for the environmental group Earthjustice, said the ruling would speak loudly to the other courts considering cases challenging the road ban.
“This doesn’t tell the lower court what to rule, but it does send a very strong signal to the lower court,” Hayden said.
In its opinion, the 9th Circuit noted the value of the remote country protected by the roadless rule.
“Roadless areas in our national forests also help conserve some of the last unspoiled wilderness in our country,” the panel wrote.
“The unspoiled forest provides not only sheltering shade for the visitor and sustenance for its diverse wildlife but also pure water and fresh oxygen for humankind.
“In contrast, road construction and reconstruction facilitates forest management by timber harvest and possibly aiding fire prevention, but it is to a degree inimical to conservation.”