In a major victory for environmentalists and others who support conservation on public lands, a federal district court on Wednesday reinstated the 2001 Roadless Rule which bars further road construction in National Forests around the country.
The Bush Administration had repealed the rule upon taking office, and eventually replaced it with a plan under which individual states could develop their own plans for roadless areas and petition the Forest Service to implement them. But the states of California, Oregon, New Mexico, Montana and Washington, as well as a large coalition of environmental groups, sued to block the change, while Idaho, Alaska and a consortium of off-road vehicle groups joined the Forest Service in defending it.
On Wednesday Federal Judge Elizabeth Laporte ruled in favor of the roadless supporters, saying the Forest Service had violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act by not examing the potential environmental consequences of the change. A copy of the decision is here.
Bush’s repeal of the rule sent ripples across the West and today’s ruling will be no different. Already, several projects in Idaho and Colorado could be off the table after Laporte’s ruling.
In Idaho, the petition was just finalized and released Wednesday, in a case of either exquisite or exquisitely painful timing. Idaho Governor Jim Risch held a press conference Wednesday morning to announce his proposed changes to U.S. Forest Service management plans for 9.3 million acres of roadless areas in Idaho’s national forests.
Risch’s office tells the Associated Press that the petition will not go through until the case is resolved, but that Idaho will join in the appeal to Laporte’s decision. Risch is quoted in the AP story saying, “We are moving forward today in presenting our recommendations to the federal government on how Idaho wants its roadless areas managed. This latest ruling will be appealed and Idaho will continue its participation in the case and join in that appeal.”
On the other hand, Idaho Conservation League Executive Director Jonathan Oppenheimer was gratified by today’s decision. He tells New West the decision ” backs up the will of a lot of Idahoans to see our backcountry and roadless areas protected for traditional Idaho pastimes like fishing, hunting, and hiking. It’s great for maintaining clean water and air.”
Oppenheimer said the ICL was a party to the lawsuit which resulted in this decision, “and we think it’s the right one. But this is a complicated national issue, and this doesn’t close the book on the story.” He said other lawsuits could be reinstated or appealed.
At least two projects in proposal stage will be halted by today’s ruling: An open-pit phosphate mine in southern Idaho, and two separate timber sales near Bonner’s Ferry and Sandpoint in northern Idaho.
In Colorado, where several roadless areas have been threatened by the boom in natural gas production, environmentalists expected the ruling to have immediate impacts. A proposal to extend a natural gas pipeline through a trio of roadless areas should be off the table, they said, as should several gas leases in roadless areas that have been approved but not finalized.
Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, said it should also preclude future gas leasing in roadless areas.
After hearing calls for roadless protections at a series of meetings across Colorado this year, a state bipartisan Roadless Area Review Task Force recommended most of the state roadless areas remain free of development. Gov. Bill Owens is reviewing those recommendations and will make his own request to Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who has said he will consider them but isn’t bound by them.
“What this means is, the court is validating what the people of the United States and the people of Colorado have said repeatedly: that roadless areas are more valuable roadless than all mucked up with roads.,” Shoemaker said. “I think this is a great victory for the people of Colorado who came out in droves to ask that state roadless areas stay as they are – roadless,” Shoemaker said.
The Bureau of Land Management has allowed gas drilling in roadless areas throughout western Colorado, including some 20,000 auctioned in August and another 4,000 auctioned in 2004. Environmentalists have opposed both of those.
They are also opposing a pipeline that would connect the Bull Mountain gas field near Paonia to the network of pipelines in the Piceance Basin gas field through a 100-foot clearing that would pass through about eight miles of three roadless areas.
“I think the Forest Service needs to go back to the drawing board,” Shoemaker said.
In Montana, home to 6.9 million roadless acres, Montana Wilderness Association conservation director John Gatchell hailed the decision Wednesday, saying, “This just verifies what Montanans at the 32 public hearings held in Montana told us. A strong majority wants to keep our roadless lands roadless.”
Gatchell said in Montana, building new roads didn’t make sense because the Forest Service doesn’t even have enough money to maintain the already roaded areas.
“To get beneath the politics of this, even in meetings with snowmobilers, I’ve never heard that we need a bunch of new roads,” Gatchell said.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer has been vocal in his opposition to Bush’s plan for roadless areas, saying shortly after the decision, that the administration had put a decision on states that was not their call to make — nor one they could afford. “They’ve given me a broke-down baler and a vice-grip and told me to bale hay,” Schweitzer told New West at the time.
Schweitzer had been holding meetings across Montana taking input on roadless areas but had asked the federal government for help funding making the decision.
Attorney General Mike McGrath has defended the 2001 Clinton-era rule, filing an amicus brief last winter in support of the lawsuit ruled on Wednesday.
But just last week, as the Bigfork Eagle reported, at least 7,8000 Montanans have signed a petition in opposition to the Roadless rule and McGrath’s support of it. Joined by Sen. Conrad Burns and U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, at least 100 people presented the petition to Schweitzer’s chief policy adviser Hal Harper last week.
In Oregon, though the recent decades have not been easy ones for loggers, forestry still accounts for about 10 percent of the economy. Oregon’s Gov. Ted Kulongoski has laid out half a dozen forestry goals to manage the state’s nearly woodlands — including adherence to the 2001 roadless rule. That’s a reflection of Oregonians more generally, more than 90 percent of whom supported the roadless rule in comments submitted back in 2000.
In a press release issued Wednesday, Kulongoski called the roadless ruling “a significant victory” for conservation efforts in the state. “Today’s ruling should put to rest more than 30 years of debate so we can focus on more critical forest priorities – like addressing declining forest health, catastrophic wildfires, and creating sustainable and predictable harvest levels.”
There are nearly two million acres of roadless areas in Oregon, and a comparable amount of land in neighboring Washington state. Both states have been collecting citizen comments recently in an ongoing effort to repeal the Bush Administration’s road-building plan.
In Wyoming, Gov. Dave Freudenthal tells Bob Moen in the Casper Star-Tribune that the state will challenge Wednesday’s ruling by filing a motion to to revive an earlier ruling on a case the state brought against the Clinton rule in the first place. “And my guess, lawyers will make an immense amount of money over the next year and not much will change,” he says.
New Mexico signed on early to the lawsuit and Governor Bill Richardson was the first governor to file a petition under the new rule, asking for all 1.7 million acres of inventoried roadless areas to be protected.
Wednesday, Martin Heinrich, president of the Albuquerque City Council and former Wilderness Alliance activist said the news was encouraging. “I think that the appropriate reaction is that its nice to see a federal judge validate all the overwhelming comment from the public.”
In Utah, where Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. welcomed Bush’s repeal of the rule, the governor’s office said Wednesday it will go forward with creating the petition. Lynn Stevens, public lands policy coordinator for Huntsman, said the governor plans to submit the “multiple use” plan to the Forest Service when it is due in November. “Until we get other guidelines, we’re responding to the Bush administration’s direction,” Stevens tells the Salt Lake Tribune
Mike Swenson of the Utah Shared Access Alliance told New West his group was still reviewing the decision, “but we would certainly like to see the government prevail in the situation.” He said his group want to see “shared space.”
“We just don’t want to see traditional access closed,” he said.
Coincidentally this ruling comes on the heels of another success for Utah’s environmentalist community. Yesterday the federal Bureau of Land Management made the decision to limit off-road vehicle use on the land surrounding Factory Butte. The use of ORVs in the area has been hotly debated for some time, with Utah Wilderness groups arguing to protect the area’s endangered Wrights Fishhook cactus and threatened Winkler cactus.
New West correspondents David Frey in Aspen, Jill Kuraitis in Boise, Bill Schneider in Helena, Tracy Medley in Salt Lake CIty, Dan Richardson in Hood , Emily Esterson in Albuquerque and Richard Martin in Boulder contributed to this report.
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