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Court upholds Clinton-era ban on forest road-building

The judges' decision is strong enough, experts say, that it probably spells an end to the protracted legal battle over the 2001 rule for nearly 50 million acres of public land.

October 21, 2011|By Bettina Boxall, Los Angeles Times

A federal appeals court Friday upheld a Clinton administration rule that bans road-building and logging on roughly a quarter of the country's national forestland.

The unanimous decision by a three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals could settle one of the most contentious conservation issues of the last decade. The 2001 roadless rule, issued in the final days of the Clinton administration, generated lawsuits, conflicting court opinions and repeal efforts.

The ruling was the second by a federal appeals court to uphold the Clinton action. The state of Wyoming and mining interests argued that the road ban usurped congressional authority by establishing de facto wilderness areas on a large chunk of Western public lands.

The case could be appealed to the Supreme Court, but environmental attorneys said the ruling is so strong that it probably spells an end to the protracted legal battle over nearly 50 million acres of public forest.

"This was an extremely thorough, 120-page opinion, unanimous and authored by a George W. Bush appointee," said Jim Angell, an Earthjustice attorney who represented environmental groups in the case. "I expect this rule to hold."

In their opinion, the Denver panel, one Democratic and two Republican appointees, found the Clinton prohibitions were not as strict as wilderness protections and did not exceed the authority of the U.S. Forest Service.

Although the regulations barred road construction and timber-harvesting, the judges noted that they permitted a number of activities not allowed in congressionally designated wilderness areas, including use of existing roads, commercial grazing, mining activities and snowmobiling.

The panel also dismissed arguments that the federal government had failed to perform an adequate environmental review of the roadless rule's impact.

Conservation groups hailed the Clinton regulation for protecting large expanses of relatively untouched wild lands. But many Western governors and timber and energy interests denounced the ban for placing so much public land off-limits to natural resource development.

The appeals decision came in response to a second lawsuit filed by the state of Wyoming, which has 3.25 million acres of roadless forest covered by the rule. A spokesman for Wyoming Republican Gov. Matt Mead said his office was reviewing the decision and could not say what it would do next. The state could ask the full 10th Circuit to review the decision or petition the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case.

California was one of several states that filed legal briefs defending the rule.

The 2001 order protected 58.5 million of the 191 million acres in the national forest system. The Bush administration later exempted the large Tongass National Forest in Alaska. Using a long-standing federal petition process, the state of Idaho also adopted its own, more lax standards for the 9.3 million acres of roadless forest within its boundaries.

This spring the Tongass exemption was overturned by a federal district court. Alaska is appealing that decision and has filed another lawsuit against the Clinton rule. And conservation groups are challenging the Idaho action.

"The Obama administration has been and remains a strong supporter of the protection of roadless areas," the U.S. Forest Service said in a statement. "These areas are vital for protecting watersheds, [and] providing recreation and hunting and fishing opportunities. We applaud this decision upholding the 2001 rule and are proud to have vigorously supported the rule in this case."

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