State officials in California, New Mexico and Oregon filed a lawsuit Tuesday to block the Bush administration’s repeal of a ban on road building in 58.5 million acres of national forest land.
In a U.S. District Court suit filed in San Francisco, California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, New Mexico Atty. Gen. Patricia Madrid and Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski -- all Democrats -- contend that dropping the road ban would hurt water quality in forests that supply drinking water and also harm endangered species in their states.
Adopted by President Clinton shortly before he left office, the ban prohibited the construction of new roads and commercial logging on nearly a third of national forest land. Almost all of the affected acreage was in the West, including 4.4 million acres in California, 1.6 million acres in New Mexico and nearly 2 million acres in Oregon.
The Clinton ban was challenged in a number of lawsuits by timber and other interests that argued the move illegally turned a big chunk of national forest land into wilderness.
In May, the Bush administration replaced the Clinton rule with a new policy that gives states 18 months to petition the federal government to either retain the road prohibitions or open the land to development. State preferences will not necessarily stand, however, as the U.S. Agriculture secretary has the final say.
“Road building simply paves the way for logging, mining and other kinds of resource extraction,” Lockyer said in a statement. The suit is the latest of several he has filed challenging Bush administration forest policies in California, including management plans for the Sierra Nevada and the Giant Sequoia National Monument.
Agriculture Undersecretary Mark E. Rey, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service, called the roadless lawsuit “unfortunate and unnecessary.” The quickest way to provide permanent protection is through the petition process -- not by trying to revive the Clinton rule, he said in a statement. New Mexico, he noted, recently requested $500,000 from the federal government to help with that process.
Several governors have complained that they don’t have the staff or money to complete a petition, which calls for states to map areas they wish to protect or develop, to analyze the subsequent effects on wildlife and public safety, and to evaluate the threat of wildfire.
The new Bush rule places “an unfair and unnecessary burden on states that would amount to a price tag of millions of dollars and result in piecemeal management of federal forest land,” Kulongoski said in a statement.
If a state doesn’t file a petition, its roadless areas would be managed according to individual forest plans, which in California would allow road construction on more than half the acreage.
Forest Service officials in the state have said they have no development plans for California’s roadless wildlands. The Los Padres National Forest nonetheless recently announced it was opening 38,000 roadless acres to oil and gas leasing that would allow underground slant drilling from wells on adjacent land -- meaning energy development could occur next door.
The Republican Schwarzenegger administration, which is independent of Lockyer, has sent conflicting signals on the roadless issue. It initially welcomed the Bush policy and said it did not intend to file a petition. But after a storm of criticism from the state’s Democratic congressional delegation, the administration said it wanted to retain the roadless protections.
Tuesday, state resources communications deputy secretary Sandy Cooney said the administration was engaged in ongoing talks with the Forest Service to accomplish that.
The administration may ultimately have to file a petition -- or even consider joining Lockyer’s lawsuit, he added. “We reserve the option to join the lawsuit. Right now we don’t think that’s necessary.”