Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Bush's roadless rule sparks another lawsuit

Yellowstone Coalition joins three states in legal battle

Express Staff Writer

The federal government's attempt to alter the management of 50 million acres of roadless National Forest land has drawn additional legal fire, this time from the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and 19 other conservation groups, which jointly filed a lawsuit against the process in federal district court last week.

The Yellowstone Coalition joins the states of California, Oregon and New Mexico, which all filed lawsuits against the Bush administration in August over the creation of what has been labeled the "Final Rule."

The litigious atmosphere is reminiscent of the formation of the "Roadless Rule," which was launched by President Bill Clinton in 2001 in an attempt to protect the nation's roadless areas from future development. Clinton's rule was wildly popular—2 million written comments of support—but was also challenged by nine lawsuits in federal district courts in five states, including Idaho. The Bush administration in May 2005 overturned it.

Conservationists allege Clinton's rule was killed and the Final Rule was created to clear a path for future development and activities such as logging, mining and road building in roadless areas. Government officials counter that the Final Rule is designed to put more control in the hands of local roadless area users, and was necessary to clear the courts of excess litigation.

But within days of the designation of the Final Rule, a two-mile stretch of road was built in the Sage Creek Roadless Area in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest of southeast Idaho to facilitate mining endeavors.

"The Sage Creek Roadless Area is one of the Gem State's real gems," Marv Hoyt, Idaho director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, said in a press release. "It provides habitat for elk, moose, mule deer, Yellowstone cutthroat trout, and black bear. Hunters and anglers from across the country come to this region for its wildlife and wildlands."

Some studies indicate wildlife and fish populations struggle near roads.

"If you open up roadless areas (to roads), people will pull in and wildlife will pull out," Scott Stouder, a western field director for Trout Unlimited, said in August.

"Everybody knows the farther you get away from roads the better the fishing and hunting is," added Sotuder, who completed a report on Idaho's 9.3 million roadless acres in the summer of 2004. "(Roadless areas) are irreplaceable to hunting and fishing quality and value."

But the value of roadless areas isn't limited to healthy fish and wildlife habitat, according to Gundars Rudzitis, a professor of economic geography at the University of Idaho in Moscow.

"Building new roads into roadless areas just adds more taxpayer subsidies, increases budget deficits, and is lousy public policy," Rudzitis said in a press release. "Building roads into these pristine areas will only negatively impact the long-term economic future of these communities."

According to the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, there is a $558 million maintenance backlog on more than 32,000 miles of existing roads in Montana, and an $860 million backlog in Idaho.

The Final Rule is currently under formation at the state level, where county commissioners are collecting feedback from local citizens about the future management of local roadless areas (see related story). The commissioners must submit their findings and recommendations to Gov. Kempthorne's office by March 1.

If the governor agrees with any of the recommended changes, he must petition Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns, who will make the final decision.

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