Judge Blocks National Forest Roadless Rule
By Cat Lazaroff
WASHINGTON, DC, May 11, 2001 (ENS) - A federal judge in Idaho has issued an injunction barring the U.S. Forest Service from implementing new regulations that would prohibit roadbuilding in roadless areas of national forests. The decision was greeted with dismay by environmental groups, who blamed the Bush administration for failing to support the roadless rule in court.
On May 4, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) would implement the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, restricting logging and road building activities in 58.5 million acres of national forest lands.
But Veneman also announced a new rulemaking process to address what she called "reasonable concerns" raised about the rule. The expected amendments could substantially alter the rule's implementation, and lead to resource development in some areas.
Lawyers for the USDA, which oversees the U.S. Forest Service, filed court papers on May 4 stating that, "the USDA shares plaintiffs' concerns about the potential for irreparable harm in the long term under the current Rule."
Judge Lodge called the USDA plan "a Band Aid approach," and an admission that the rule is fatally flawed.
"The federal government has conceded that without the proposed rulemaking amending the roadless rule there is a potential for long term irreparable harm," Lodge said.
In granting a preliminary injunction blocking the rule, Lodge said the USDA's amendments may not prevent harm to industry and communities affected by the ban on roadbuilding.
"Once something of this magnitude is set in motion, momentum is irresistible, options are closed and agency commitments, if not set in concrete, will be the subject of litigation for years to come," Lodge ruled.
Secretary Veneman said the USDA will "move forward with a responsible and balanced approach that fairly addresses concerns raised by local communities, tribes, and states impacted by the rule."
"This administration is committed to providing roadless protection for our national forests," asserted Veneman.
The state of Idaho joined timber companies and logging industry representatives in challenging the roadless rule in court. American Forest and Paper Association president and CEO W. Henson Moore said Lodge's decision shows that the roadless rule "ignored basic principles of environmental analysis and public participation."
"Ultimately, AF&PA hopes the government will propose new roadless regulations to include appropriate protection of properly designated roadless areas while recognizing the legal requirements for forest level planning, access to private inholdings, and prevention of catastrophic wildfire, insect infestation and disease," added Moore.
Opponents of the roadless rule have long argued that banning roadbuilding in large roadless tracts of national forests would reduce the ability of forest managers to protect forests against wildfire and disease. Critics also charged that the USDA used flawed studies to determine which areas met criteria as roadless wilderness areas.
"Judge Lodge's ruling lets us get in there and pull out diseased and dead wood," said House Resources Committee chair James Hansen, a Utah Republican. "It lets us save lives and try to head off pending disaster."
"Most people don't understand that this so called roadless rule closes thousands of existing roads," Hansen said. "That's because the previous Administration used bad data when they slapped this rule together."
Steve Holmer, campaign coordinator for the conservation group American Lands, noted that, "throughout the case to date, the Bush administration has made no effort to defend the legal merits of the rule, leaving the defense entirely to the environmental intervenors."
Environmental groups will be appealing Lodge's decision and are confident that the preliminary injunction will be reversed, said Holmer.
"During Attorney General John Ashcroft's confirmation hearings, he promised, under oath, to defend these protections in court," added Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope. "We're on watch to ensure President Bush's Justice Department fulfills its obligations to the American people."
Conservation groups including American Lands filed briefs opposing the timber industry and state lawsuits, arguing that the roadless rule met and exceeded all legal requirements for public comment and local imput.
"During the rulemaking process, there were abundant opportunities for all citizens to participate," noted Jim DiPeso, communications director for REP American, the political arm of Republicans for Environmental Protection. "The national forests are the heritage of every American. Local input is important, but is not superior to other input. Those who live afar from the national forests should not be treated as second class citizens when it comes to managing the national forests."
Lodge's ruling "means the chainsaws can roar while the timber industry tries to dismantle a popular effort to protect our last wild forests," said Pope.