"This should be a case of 'three strikes and you're out,'" said Tim Preso of the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, who argued the case on behalf of a coalition of six conservation groups. "The Court's decision paves the way for the Forest Service to fashion its final policy protecting the last remnants of our nation's wild forests. The Forest Service should take this historic opportunity to establish strong and lasting protections for our remaining backcountry areas."
The ruling, issued last Friday, September 8, by District Court Judge Edward J. Lodge, rejected legal challenges to the roadless policy by Boise Cascade Corporation, the Intermountain Forest Association, the Idaho State Snowmobile Association, and others, ruling that the challenges were premature because the policy remains in its formative stages. To date the Forest Service has issued only a draft of its roadless area protection rule, and is not expected to issue its final rule until sometime this winter. The rule will establish new protections for national forest roadless areas, which account for approximately 54 million acres of the 191-million-acre national forest system.
Judge Lodge also dismissed a claim filed by Boise Cascade, Boise and Valley counties, and two Idaho livestock companies alleging that the Forest Service violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act, a federal law designed to regulate the activities of organized advisory boards, because the agency responded to conservationists' concerns about Forest Service plans to destroy remaining roadless forests through road-building and logging.
"There have been too many reckless allegations that the Forest Service's roadless area process was tainted by illegal contacts between agency officials and conservation groups. The Court's rejection of those allegations should put an end to such talk," said Craig Gehrke of The Wilderness Society, one of the conservation groups that stepped forward to defend the roadless area policy.
Judge Lodge's ruling was the third blow to efforts by opponents of the roadless policy to stop the Forest Service's roadless area protection initiative before it could yield a final decision. Last year, a temporary roadbuilding moratorium approved by the Forest Service was challenged in federal District Court in Wyoming by the Wyoming Timber Industry Association, but that challenge was dismissed in January 2000 at the requests of conservationists and the government. The second case challenging the Forest Service's efforts to protect roadless areas was brought by the State of Idaho. The State's lawsuit was dismissed in February 2000.
"The timber industry should have to air its concerns about the roadless area policy by providing comments to the Forest Service, just like every other concerned citizen," said Ken Rait of the Oregon Natural Resources Council, another conservation group that defended the roadless initiative. "The courts' repeated rulings make clear that the industry does not get a special hearing on the roadless policy in federal court."
Roadless areas provide clean water; pristine wildlife habitat for species such as cutthroat trout, eagles, wolves, grizzly bears, and salmon; and abundant opportunities for hiking, horseback riding, fishing, and hunting. There are approximately 9 million acres of national forest roadless lands in Idaho. The scope of the Forest Service's new roadless plan, and the protections that it would afford to roadless areas, have yet to be determined. A draft plan issued by the Forest Service in May called only for a ban on new road construction in roadless areas, but conservationists are calling for a prohibition on logging in roadless areas.