Judge Voids Bush Policy on National Forest Roads

September 21, 2006



WASHINGTON, Sept. 20 --- In the latest round of legal Ping-Pong over the future of 49 million roadless acres of national forests, a federal judge in California on Wednesday reinstated Clinton-era protections against logging and mining on the land and invalidated the Bush administration's substitute policy.

The judge, Elizabeth D. LaPorte of Federal District Court in San Francisco, said the new policy had been imposed without the required environmental safeguards.

The reversal, however, does not cover nine million acres of the Tongass National Forest in Alaska because a separate set of legal opinions determines their use.

Judge LaPorte ruled in a suit filed by a coalition of environmental groups and states that objected to the decision last year to scuttle what was widely known as the "roadless rule" of 2001.

The administration replaced that rule with a policy of state-by-state management under which governors submit recommendations for the use of national forest lands within their borders.

Judge LaPorte said that the original rule had laid out "the inherent problems in this kind of local decision making," particularly "the failure to recognize the cumulative national significance of individual local decisions."

In repealing the 2001 rule, she said, the Forest Service, which is part of the Agriculture Department, had failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires agencies to conduct detailed environmental analyses of alternative approaches.

Judge LaPorte said the Forest Service had failed to consult federal agencies responsible for protecting endangered species. Among other points, her order enjoined the service "from taking any further action contrary to the roadless rule without undertaking environmental analysis."

Justice Department lawyers had argued that such analyses and endangered-species consultations would be performed as decisions were made on managing individual forests and that giving states the right to petition was more procedural than substantive.

The legislative director of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, Anna Aurilio, said that the judge's ruling "sort of took it back to the first principles of environmental protection and said, you can't just ride roughshod over the environment."

"They can't just trample on all the laws," Ms. Aurilio said of the administration.

Two Agriculture Department officials said they had not decided whether to appeal the decision and would continue to accept and review state petitions.

"As a general matter, we disagree with it, but the court's order is what it is," Deputy Under Secretary David P. Tenny said.

Mr. Tenny said working closely with states to gather information was "more effective in managing roadless areas properly than a sweeping approach that deals with all areas at one time."

"We'll do our level best to keep working with the states," he added.

Six states have submitted requests under the changed policy. Five of them --- California, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia --- sought protection for their entire inventories of roadless areas.

Idaho, with the largest inventory of roadless acres outside Alaska, submitted its petition on Wednesday. It sought full protection for 1.7 million of its 9.3 million roadless acres and the option for logging and road construction in what state officials called the remaining "backcountry" areas.

A state environmental official, James L. Caswell, said that such logging would in general be intended to protect forest health and manage fire risks.

Kristen Boyles, the lawyer for Earthjustice who argued in support of the roadless rule, said the governors' petitions were "never a guarantee that we would get the protections." The repeal of the rule "was illegal, Ms. Boyles said, because the Forest Service didn't look at the environmental consequences or the alternatives."

In June, the Forest Service sold timber leases on two small roadless tracts of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest near the Oregon coast despite the explicit objections of Gov. Theodore R. Kulongoski.

Fire ravaged the area in 2002.

The merits of the roadless policy and its successor have been argued in three federal courts --- in Idaho, Wyoming and, now, California --- for six years.

The rule was first enjoined by a judge in Idaho, an injunction that the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit overturned.

A judge in Wyoming then enjoined the rule nationwide, and the United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit did not rule on that appeal until after the Agriculture Department had rescinded the rule and set up the system of state petitions in May 2005. Thereafter, the 10th Circuit said, any ruling would be moot because the roadless rule was no longer in effect.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

Informant: Teresa Binstock


Judge reinstates road ban in national forests

Great Falls Tribune


A federal judge reinstated a ban Wednesday on road construction in nearly 50 million acres of pristine wilderness, overturning a Bush administration rule that could have cleared the way for more commercial activity in national forests. U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Laporte sided with states and environmental groups that sued the U.S. Forest Service after it reversed President Clinton's 'Roadless Rule' prohibiting commercial logging, mining and other development on 58.5 million acres of national forest in 38 states and Puerto Rico...


Informant: Thomas L. Knapp


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