Friday, August 15, 2008

Roadless rule overturned—again

Environmentalists say they’ll appeal most recent round in roadless lands debate

Express Staff Writer

A federal judge in Wyoming has overturned the Clinton-era roadless rule, which prohibited road building and other development in 58.5 million acres of roadless U.S. National Forest land across the country. The Clinton rule covers about 1.2 million roadless acres in the Sawtooth National Forest, including here in this unnamed creek southwest of 11,664-foot Kent Peak in the Boulder Mountains. Photo by Jason Kauffman

For the second time in five years, a federal judge in Wyoming has invalidated a 2001 federal rule that prohibited road building on millions of acres of unroaded U.S. national forest lands.

In response to a lawsuit filed by the state of Wyoming, U.S. District Judge Clarence A. Brimmer on Tuesday issued a permanent injunction against the so-called "Roadless Rule," enacted by the Clinton administration in 2001. The judge, who first overturned the Clinton-era roadless rule in 2003, said the law violated the federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Wilderness Act, in part because it created de facto wilderness areas, something only Congress has the power to do.

Not surprisingly, environmentalists from around the country, and closer to home in Idaho where 9.3 million acres of roadless national forest land are covered by the rule, have reacted swiftly in denouncing this latest development in the back-and-forth roadless areas debate.

Dave Glenn, backcountry director of Trout Unlimited's Public Lands Initiative, described the judge's decision as yet another volley in an unfortunate game of legal ping-pong involving the management of the "last, best places to hunt and fish in the West."

"It's time for lawyers and judges to quit stomping on the very plain desires of Western hunters and anglers, as well as the elected leaders of a majority Western states, to protect the places vital to our sporting heritage," Glenn said. "This issue is simple for sportsmen and women.

"Roadless lands offer the best of what's left when it comes to fish and game habitat in the country, and that translates into the best hunting and fishing."

Except in rare circumstances, such as when fuels reduction is needed to protect rural communities, the Clinton-era rule prohibits logging, mining and other development on 58.5 million acres in states stretching from Alaska to Maine to New Mexico. More than 1.2 million acres in the Sawtooth National Forest would remain roadless under the Clinton rule.

The battle over the implementation of the roadless rule started shortly after George W. Bush entered the White House. Not long after Brimmer's original reversal of the Clinton roadless rule, the Bush administration replaced the rule with a process that allowed states to file individual petitions directing how roadless national forest lands within their boundaries should be managed.

Brimmer's 2003 decision was in turn reversed in 2006 when U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth D. Laporte in San Francisco reinstated the Clinton-era rule. Arguing for reinstatement were the states of California, Oregon, New Mexico and Washington and a consortium of conservation organizations, including the Idaho Conservation League, which has an office in Ketchum. They asserted the defendant—the United States Department of Agriculture—violated NEPA, the Endangered Species Act and the Administrative Procedures Act by issuing the state petitions.

The states of Idaho and Alaska, which both filed suits in U.S. District Court challenging Clinton's roadless rule in 2001, supported the defendants, as did the American Council of Snowmobile Associations, the pro-motorized-use Blue Ribbon Coalition, California Association of 4 Wheel Drive Clubs and Silver Creek Timber Co.

Laporte's 2006 decision triggered a new battle and prompted Wyoming to challenge the rule a second time.

Brimmer comes out swinging in his newest ruling, and his displeasure for Laporte's reversal of his original decision is apparent.

"The Northern California District Court, by way of a magistrate judge, surreptitiously re-instituted the 2001 roadless rule, even though this court had previously ruled that it was promulgated in violation of NEPA and the Wilderness Act," Brimmer states.

In regards to the Clinton administration, the judge spared little in condemning the efforts to implement the roadless rule before the Bush administration took charge in January 2001.

"The Forest Service, in an attempt to bolster an outgoing president's environmental legacy, rammed through an environmental agenda that itself violated this country's well-established environmental laws," Brimmer charges.

Ironically, should the judge's decision stand, protections similar to those provided for by the Clinton rule may remain in place for roadless national forest lands in Idaho. The Forest Service is set to implement as soon as this fall a new Idaho rule that would preserve most of the state's 9.3 million acres of roadless lands.

Under a separate rule-making process that states can elect to enter into, but one different than that pursued by the Bush administration, former Idaho Gov. and now Lt. Gov. Jim Risch submitted Idaho's roadless rule petition to the Roadless Area Conservation National Advisory Committee, which advises the Forest Service, in 2006. Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter subsequently endorsed Risch's plan after taking office.

Colorado officials are also using the same process to develop their own state-specific roadless rule for more than 4 million roadless acres.

In a news release, The Wilderness Society, a strong supporter of the Clinton plan, said it will challenge Brimmer's decision.

"The decision by Judge Clarence Brimmer puts at risk nearly 60 million acres of pristine national forest lands that were protected from road building and logging by the Clinton administration," the group stated. "The Roadless Rule enjoyed the most public support in the history of federal rulemaking, with more than 95 percent of the 1.7 million comments favoring the strongest possible protection."

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