Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Conservationists split over roadless rule

Express Staff Writer

Environmental groups opposed to the Idaho Roadless Rule have filed a lawsuit challenging the conservation plan for unroaded national forest lands in the state.

The state-specific rule, which went into effect Oct. 16, replaced a federal roadless policy for the nation's entire system of roadless national forest lands that former President Bill Clinton had issued before leaving office in January 2001. Unlike the Clinton rule, the Idaho Roadless Rule does not protect all the national forest roadless land in the state.

The suit was filed last week in U.S. District Court in Boise by The Wilderness Society, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and The Lands Council. The groups are represented by the Earthjustice environmental law firm.

The groups argue that the Idaho rule weakens protections for endangered species like woodland caribou, salmon, steelhead, bull trout and grizzly bears and puts sensitive species such as Yellowstone and Bonneville cutthroat trout at high risk.

"Idaho should not be the only state in the Lower 48 to have roadless forest protection downgraded by the Bush administration," said Craig Gehrke, regional director in Idaho for The Wilderness Society. "The people we represent who care about public land want all of Idaho's best forests to get the same protection as the rest of the country, and they want environmental laws to be followed."

Idaho has over 9.3 million acres of roadless national forest land, more than any other state except Alaska.

Former Idaho Gov. Jim Risch, now serving as U.S. senator for Idaho, submitted Idaho's roadless rule petition to the Roadless Area Conservation National Advisory Committee in Washington D.C. in 2006. The plan was endorsed by Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter. Though Idaho Conservation League expressed concerns about aspects of Risch's roadless plan, in the end it threw its support behind it.

Since former President George Bush took over eight years ago and attempted to reverse the Clinton rule, it has been batted about in federal courts.

Environmental groups around the country are now asking President Barack Obama to fully reinstate the Clinton rule, which protected approximately 58.5 million acres of roadless land stretching from Alaska to Maine. Spanning 39 states, the Clinton rule set aside roughly one-third of the nation's 192 million acres of national forest land.

The lawsuit was filed during the final days of the Bush administration. If the conservation groups had filed their suit after Tuesday's inauguration in Washington D.C., they would have been required to sue the Obama administration.

Though Colorado officials also attempted to craft a roadless plan themselves, Idaho was the only state to have a state-specific plan approved and implemented.

More than 1.2 million roadless acres on the Sawtooth National Forest are included in the Idaho rule. Most roadless lands on the Sawtooth are found locally, surrounding the Wood River Valley in the Smoky, Pioneer, Boulder and White Cloud mountains.

In an interview with the Idaho Mountain Express last week, Risch called the lawsuit "disheartening" and dismissed The Wilderness Society's arguments as "bogus."

"Everybody put a lot of skin in this game and we resolved this," Risch said. "Everybody expended a lot of capital."

Though the U.S. Senate did recently approve an omnibus bill that includes the Owyhee wilderness proposal pushed by U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, Risch said he worries that the lawsuit could make future roadless actions more difficult.

"To do this undermines future efforts in this area," he said. "This sort of thing doesn't help."

Risch added that his own efforts might be hampered by the last-minute lawsuit.

"You kind of lose enthusiasm," he said.

But the conservation groups remain undeterred. They're most concerned by the aspects of the Idaho rule that release for general forest management 400,000 acres of roadless areas, most located in southeast Idaho, and the rule's designation of 5.2 million roadless acres under a "Backcountry Recreation" management designation, which they say could open them up to logging and roadbuilding. Other conservation groups, including the ICL, maintain that logging and roadbuilding would be permitted on only a small portion of that land. Those groups are not on board the lawsuit.

"I think it's a mistake," ICL Executive Director Rick Johnson said. "Risch is going to take this real personally."

He added that while the rule "has its flaws," few would have predicted the amount of support protecting Idaho's roadless lands generated.

"It ended up being pretty good," he said.

Jason Kauffman:

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