"The Bush Administration showed its cards Friday," said Tim Preso, attorney for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, which along with Natural Resources Defense Council is representing eight environmental groups in the issue. "This appears to be a calculated first step by the Administration to avoid offering any defense of the roadless policy. By asking for another delay rather than vigorously defending the rule, the Bush Administration is giving us every reason to believe they're planning to bring bulldozers back into our national forests. And certainly this is a far cry from the vigorous defense of the rule Attorney General Ashcroft promised in his confirmation hearings."
Roadless areas are portions of the national forest system where precious habitat is preserved for wildlife and clean water as well as for many activities such as hiking, hunting, fishing and camping.
The Roadless Area Conservation Rule protects the last remaining one-third of unspoiled national forest land from commercial logging, road construction and other damaging activities. More than 50 percent of the roughly 190 million acres of national forest land is already open to logging, mining and other extractive industries. The Forest Service issued the rule to protect 58.5 million acres of forestland after a three-year administrative process that involved more than 600 public meetings (including more than 40 in Idaho) and that drew a record-breaking 1.6 million public comments.
"Roadless areas are essential for clean water that not only benefits people, but also provides great habitat for fish," said Sara Denniston of Idaho Rivers United. "Leaving roadless areas pristine goes a long way toward protecting the blue ribbon fisheries of many Idaho rivers including Kelly, Cayuse and Long Canyon Creeks and the upper Middle Fork Payette River, among others."
Almost immediately after his inauguration, the Bush Administration ordered all recent Clinton Administration rules and policies to be halted, pending review. In early February, the Bush Administration announced that the roadless policy, scheduled to go into effect March 13, would be delayed until May 12, pending further review. Conservationists charge that Friday's second delay clearly indicates that the Bush Administration has no intention of upholding the law as it is written in spite of repeated claims by cabinet members that they would do so.
"They're manipulating the judicial system to keep the American people out of their backroom efforts to rewrite the law in a way that is more pleasing to their friends in the timber industry," said William H. Meadows, president of The Wilderness Society.
Two separate lawsuits before this court currently seek to overturn the roadless policy. The Boise Cascade suit includes Boise and Valley Counties, a handful of livestock companies and off-road vehicle groups and the Kootenai Tribe. The state of Idaho and Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne have filed the second lawsuit.
"They're going to tell you that the whole process leading up to the roadless decision was flawed because the public wasn't adequately informed," concluded Preso. "But after 600 public meetings and 1.6 million comments, it's clear the public was informed and spoke out in favor of protecting our last pristine forests. It's not the process but rather the outcome that they don't like. All signals indicate this policy is in serious danger."