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Appeals Court Reinstates National Forest Roadless Area Protections

A federal appeals court on December 12, 2002, reinstated legal protections for 58.5 million acres of wild national forest lands. The decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed an injunction against the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, a measure imposed by the Forest Service in January 2001 that bans most roadbuilding and logging in the remaining undeveloped portions of the 191-million-acre National Forest System.

The Ninth Circuit's decision overturned a May 2001 ruling by a federal judge in Idaho that suspended implementation of the Roadless Rule at the request of the Boise Cascade timber company and the State of Idaho. Although the Bush administration declined to contest the judge's ruling, a coalition of conservation groups appealed the Idaho decision to the Ninth Circuit.

The coalition of groups includes: Idaho Conservation League, Idaho Rivers United, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, Oregon Natural Resources Council, Pacific Rivers Council, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Defenders of Wildlife.

The Roadless Rule protects 58.5 million acres of identified roadless areas nationwide from road construction and commercial logging, while containing exceptions to deal with forest emergencies. The Forest Service issued the rule after a three-year administrative process that involved more than 600 public meetings (including more than 40 in Idaho) and that drew approximately 1.6 million public comments, of which fully 96 percent favored establishing new protections for roadless lands.

In the decision, the Ninth Circuit recognized the importance of the remaining National Forest roadless areas:

"[R]oadless areas contribute to the health of the public because they help preserve the forest system's watersheds, the rivers, streams, lakes, and wetlands that are 'the circulatory system of ecosystems, and water is the vital fluid for inhabitants of these ecosystems, including people.'"

"The roadless areas also provide 'important habitat for a variety of terrestrial and aquatic wildlife and plants, including hundreds of threatened, endangered, and sensitive species.' 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."

"Given the importance of roadless lands as a resource and the ease with which they may be irretrievably damaged, and the amount of forest land already crossed by roads that facilitate active management of vast acreages, a near total ban on further road construction in the remaining and precious roadless areas within our national forests is not the drastic measure that the plaintiffs make it out to be."