A 1990 photo shows Alaska's Tongass National Forest, where federal… (Hall Anderson / Associated…)
SEATTLE — A court in Washington, D.C., has rejected the last legal challenge to prohibitions on logging and road building in backcountry roadless areas, ending more than 12 years of fighting over one of the nation’s signature wilderness protection policies.
The state of Alaska had challenged the rule adopted in 2001 by President Clinton to preserve the last large tracts of untouched forest in states including Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and Alaska — along with about 1.7 million acres in California — that still have not been opened to logging and other development.
U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon ruled Monday that Alaska’s challenge in 2011 came too late under the statute of limitations to invalidate a policy that already has survived multiple lawsuits in courts across the country.
A separate challenge seeking to exempt 9.3 million acres of the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska still is pending before a federal appeals court, but that case would not affect the bulk of the so-called “roadless rule” in effect across 58.5 million acres of the U.S.
“These are places that families go for hiking, camping, fishing, boating, hunting and all kinds of other recreational uses in the national forests,” said Tom Waldo, who argued the case for the environmental law organization, Earthjustice, one of several that intervened.
Idaho and Wyoming earlier had unsuccessfully challenged the rule prohibiting new roadbuilding. Alaska has worried primarily about its effects on the Tongass in southeast Alaska, where the troubled timber industry could face additional declines. The roadless rule would effectively prohibit logging on about 2 million acres of the Tongass’ 9.3 million roadless acres that otherwise might be available.
The Bush administration, recognizing local plans for the Tongass, had exempted that forest, but a federal court set aside the exemption. Alaska’s appeal of that ruling is awaiting a decision from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Tom Lenhart, assistant attorney general in Alaska, said the state is evaluating whether to appeal the decision, in part because the judge conceded there was some question over the proper statute of limitations for challenging the rule.
He said the court never ruled on the merits of the challenge from the state, which argued that the federal government was prohibited from designating new wilderness lands in Alaska by the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. Subsequent federal law guaranteed a reliable supply of timber to local mills, he said.
Meanwhile, Alaska’s congressional delegation introduced legislation in February to repeal the roadless rule. “Unemployment in the rural portions of southeast Alaska currently averages more than 15%,” U.S. Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said in a statement. “The residents of southeast Alaska don’t need more rules from Washington. They need more jobs and economic diversification.”
Alaska advocates of the rule have said southeast Alaska can benefit more from tourism and small-scale logging than by clear-cutting the last stands of old-growth timber.
“The decision today really is a complete victory for the roadless rule, because it means it’s not only too late for the state of Alaska to bring a challenge, it’s too late for anyone to bring a challenge,” Waldo said. “The roadless rule is the law of the land, and it’s time to move on.”
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