Roadless Rule Upheld as Bush Moves to Speed Logging

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, December 12, 2002 (ENS) - A federal appeals court today upheld the legality of a rule aimed at protecting 58.5 million acres of unroaded areas in national forests from logging and roadbuilding. The decision came one day after President George W. Bush ordered the Departments of Agriculture and Interior to take administrative actions aimed at reducing the environmental reviews required before approval of forest fuels reduction projects.

The court's decision could have implications for the Bush administration's proposal, announced Wednesday, which would make it easier for forest managers to approve forest thinning projects to clear brush and small trees - as well as large, commercially valuable timber.

Court Upholds Roadless Rule

In a decision released today, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a lower court injunction blocking the implementation of the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, ruling that the regulation complies with federal law.

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Conservation groups say logging roads, like this one on the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia, break up wildlife habitat and can lead to erosion and other problems. (Photo by Steve Holmer, courtesy American Lands)
"This means that the roadless rule is the law of the land," said Nathaniel Lawrence, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and co-counsel for environmental intervenors in the case. "The appeals court has resoundingly overturned the temporary injunction blocking the rule."

The U.S. Forest Service issued the Roadless Area Conservation Rule on January 12, 2001 during the last days of the Clinton administration. The rule bars almost all roadbuilding and logging on 58.5 million acres of unroaded areas in national forests.

"Today's ruling vindicates the outpouring of public support and the extraordinary process that led to this monumental conservation rule," continued Lawrence. "It's a ray of hope at a time when our national forests are under assault by the Bush administration and its timber industry allies. The question now is whether the administration will enforce the rule or continue trying to gut it."

After the roadless rule was issued, the state of Idaho, Boise Cascade Corporation, the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho and recreational groups sued the federal government, arguing that they would suffer irreparable harm. Judge Edward Lodge of the U.S. District Court in Idaho agreed that the plaintiffs would likely win their case, and on May 10, 2001, he granted their motion for a preliminary injunction blocking the rule.

By the time of Judge Lodge's ruling, the Bush administration had entered office, and the new administration declined to appeal the ruling, infuriating many supporters of the rule. But the case went to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals anyway, because environmental groups intervened and appealed on the side of the federal government.

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Wildfire risks could be used as an excuse to open access to roadless forest areas. (Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service)
The appeals court rejected the plaintiffs' argument that the Forest Service violated the requirement for public input in crafting the rule. In the 55 page ruling, Judge Ronald Gould wrote that, "Upon our review of the record, we are persuaded that the Forest Service did provide the public with extensive, relevant information on the Roadless Rule. We also conclude that the Forest Service allowed adequate time for meaningful public debate and comment."

The appeals court noted that "the Forest Service held over 400 public meetings about the Roadless Rule and that it received over 1,150,000 written comments." It also rejected arguments that the Forest Service failed to consider an adequate range of alternatives.

"It's good news that the court upheld Americans' right to say they want these special places protected for future generations to enjoy," said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, another of the environmental groups that intervened in the suit. "Americans overwhelmingly support protecting wild forests, and the Bush Administration should honor the wishes of citizens, not special interests."

In the ruling, the court of appeals stated, "Roadless areas in our national forests also help conserve some of the last unspoiled wilderness in our country. The unspoiled forest provides not only sheltering shade for the visitor and sustenance for its diverse wildlife but also pure water and fresh oxygen for humankind."

The case will now return to U.S. District Court in Idaho for further review.

"The Roadless Rule is wildly popular with the overwhelming majority of Americans who want to see our national forests protected," said Lawrence. "Unfortunately, the Bush administration never really tried to defend the rule. In fact, the administration made it clear that it was using Judge Lodge's opinion as a rationale for reopening and potentially gutting the rule. Since then, we've seen the administration steadily hack away at this and other forest conservation measures."

Bush Seeks to Loosen Restrictions on Forest Thinning Projects

On Wednesday, for example, the Bush administration proposed restricting opportunities for judicial, public and environmental review of forest thinning projects. The move came after Congress declined to pass legislation this year to enact the Bush administration's plans for reducing wildfire risks in national forests.

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Conservation groups say leftover logging slash, like this in Oregon, increases fire and disease risks. (Photo by Steve Holmer, courtesy American Lands)
The administration argues that "excessive analysis, ineffective public involvement and management inefficiencies" slow the approval process for forest management projects that are needed to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires that can destroy forests, leaving nothing but scorched, sterile earth behind.

"We are trying to expedite our processes in order to prevent catastrophic damage to our forests and rangelands by returning these lands to good health, which will protect lives, property and homes," said Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who met Wednesday with President Bush, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, and White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) Chair James Connaughton.

"Needless delay closes the narrow window of opportunity we have to do essential fuels treatment work between fire seasons," Norton added. "Forest ecologists and the land managers know the truth: We cannot afford to wait any longer. If we fail to act, we will continue to see millions of acres of forests go up in smoke every year."

Secretary Veneman said federal, state and community leaders have "reached an unprecedented level of agreement" on how best to protect communities and the environment from wildfires.

Veneman

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said the Bush administration proposal would allow the Forest Service to take rapid action to reduce wildfire risks on national forest lands. (Photo courtesy USDA)
"The actions we are taking today will continue to build upon the President's Healthy Forests Initiative [announced earlier this year] and strengthen our management tools and firefighting capabilities to improve forest health," Veneman added.

But conservation groups say the Bush proposal will fail to protect communities from forest fires while increasing the role of the timber industry and limiting the role of the public in decisions that affect the health of national forests.

"We know how to save homes and communities from forest fires, and this is not the way to do it," said Amy Mall, a forest and land specialist at NRDC. "This plan is nothing more than a payback to the timber industry, allowing it to remove trees far from where people live."

Mall noted that numerous studies show that the way to save houses from forest fires is to remove trees and bushes within a few dozen yards of the homesite and use fire resistant building materials. Homes that are not fire proofed in this way can burn down in even low intensity wildfires.

"It is disingenuous to promote increased logging packaged as fuel reduction," said Pope. "If the Bush administration is serious about protecting communities from forest fires, it should focus resources on real fuel reduction near at risk communities instead of opening more loopholes for the timber industry."

clearcut

This logging clearcut next to Lake Menaloose Ancient Forest Reserve in Mt. Hood National Forest, Oregon, left plenty of fuel for wildfires on the ground. (Photo by Steve Holmer, courtesy American Lands)
Under the administration's proposal, logging companies would be permitted to cut large, fire resistant trees down, sometimes in areas far from populated areas, along with the brush and smaller trees that fuel most damaging fires. Environmental impact reviews of these projects would be limited or absent, and the projects would be approved under shortened schedules with new restrictions on both public comment and judicial review.

"These proposals have nothing to do with forest fires and everything to do with money," said Phil Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust. "If the Bush administration really cared about protecting people's homes, the president would cut the huge logging subsidies to the timber industry that create unhealthy, fire prone forests."

Some lawmakers from western states praised the Bush proposal. Representative Scott McInnis, a Colorado Republican and chair of the forests subcommittee of the House Resources Committee, said the package "represents real progress in addressing the growing wildfire epidemic."

"With the next fire season a few short months away, western communities want forward movement and they want it now," McInnis said.

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Forest thinning at the Fort Valley timber sale in northern Arizona has left scattered trees surrounded by barren ground (Photo courtesy Martos Hoffman, Native Forest Network)
House Resources committee chair James Hansen, a Utah Republican, said the record wildfire seasons in 2000 "were a clear call to action."

"The Forest Service tried to respond to that call, but it was hobbled by bureaucratic red tape and frivolous lawsuits," Hansen continued. "We have two choices: Act swiftly this winter or do little and, next summer, spend another $1 billion fighting ferocious wildfires that eat up another six million acres of forests and habitat, destroying homes and killing wildlife. We choose to act."

But Democrats in Congress said the forests plan is just another in a series of Bush proposals that would weaken environmental laws. Representative George Miller, a California Democrat who sits on the House Resources committee, called the plan "the latest ax to fall on environmental protections and public participation."

Miller

Representative George Miller was one of 173 original cosponsors of a House bill, introduced in June, that would enact the roadless rule. (Photo courtesy Office of Representative Miller)
"I am struck that the President would move forward without debate in Congress on a policy that is so controversial and so important," Miller added. "There is no question that we need to take steps to protect western communities at severe risk of wildfires while also protecting the rights of the public to participate in decisions that affect their forests. The president's policy will not do that. It will simply continue the raging legal battles and animosity that decades of bad forest policy have engendered throughout the west."

"Obviously President Bush has interpreted the recent elections as a mandate to pollute, cut and drill," Miller concluded.

Today's opinion from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is available at: http://www.ce9.uscourts.gov/