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.

road

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)
Idaho Federal District Judge Edward Lodge placed a preliminary injunction on the Roadless Area Conservation Rule to prevent it from going into effect this Saturday. In his decision, Lodge rejected arguments by the Bush administration that proposed amendments to the rule, to be revealed next month, would answer the judge's concern about the rule.

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."

clearcut

About 70 percent of the nation's national forests are crossed by roads or marred by clearcuts, like this one in Oregon's Cascade Range (Photo by Steve Holmer, courtesy American Lands)
Major amendments to be proposed in June will address those concerns, the USDA argued, saying, "it would appear unlikely that such harm will occur in the short term given the lengthy planning horizons needed for activities in inventoried roadless areas."

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.

wildfire

The timber industry argues that some roads and logging are needed to reduce the risk of wildlife (Photo courtesy Forest Service)
The timber industry and western lawmakers hailed the judge's decision. Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne, a Republican, said Lodge's ruling "affirmed what the State of Idaho has contended all along that there were fatal flaws in the rulemaking process, and that the roadless policy posed serious risks to both federal forest lands and neighboring state lands by restricting active management."

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."

slash

Conservation groups say leftover logging slash, like this in Oregon, increased fire and disease risks (Photo by Steve Holmer, courtesy American Lands)
But supporters of the rule said the judge's decision was largely influenced by the failure of the Bush administration to actively defend the roadless rule, which was written under the administration of former President Bill Clinton.

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.

fragments

Roads and logging can fragment forests, like this area of the Willamette National Forest in Oregon (Photo by Steve Holmer, courtesy American Lands)
"The wild forest policy was developed after three years of public debate," said Pope. "The policy was developed with the largest public input process ever with 600 public hearings around the nation and with over 1.6 million public comments received."

"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.