Roadless Protection: Still Alive, Still Under Attack

March brings Roadless Rule's day in court, but threats loom

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More than a decade ago, dedicated conservationists within and without the Forest Service began clamoring for a nation-wide policy to protect the last remnants of roadless lands across the National Forests. The rationales were many: providing solitude for wildlife, preventing wildfires (which occur most often near roads), protecting water supplies for cities and towns, and leaving the last scraps of land unharmed by the buldozer after a century of pressure from loggers, miners, and other development.

And after the most comprehensive public input process in the history of American government—more than a million comments from members of the public, hundreds of hearings and open houses, a comprehensive environmental review—President Bill Clinton signed the "Roadless Rule" into law with just a week remaining in his term. The rule proteced 58 million acres of America’s last unroaded lands from auction, bulldozing and commercial logging.

But the Roadless Rule immediately came under assault. George W. Bush and the logging lobbyists he hired to run forest policy promptly set about dismantling the rule. And even before the rule had been signed, anti-environmental interests had filed the first of a barrage of lawsuits aimed at taking down the rule.

The rule had its defenders, however. Conservation groups, represented by my Earthjustice colleagues Jim Angell, Kristen Boyles, Tim Preso, Tom Waldo and others, fought off the attacks in court. And, for the most part, they won. Thanks to them, when the Bush Administration finally packed its bags, the Roadless Rule was bloodied but very much alive.

And now, nearly a decade after it was adopted, the Roadless Rule will celebrate another red letter day.

On March 10, in the Byron White federal court house in Denver, attorneys for the Forest Service will stand up and do something they haven’t done for many a year: give a full-throated defense of the Roadless Rule, attempting to turn back an ill-considered lawsuit from the State of Wyoming. Earthjustice attorneys will be arguing the case, too, but they’ll be happy the United States is finally fighting hard for the right result.

But even a win in this case won’t end the fight.

That’s because some local Forest Service officials are still going ahead with business as usual in roadless areas, and because powerful interests are still trying to kill the rule. Several examples of this this are playing out in Colorado within a few hours drive of the courthouse in Denver.

In the Brushy Creek Roadless Area south of Steamboat Springs, the Forest Service has proposed logging to protect homes and outbuildings on adjacent private land in the event of a major fire. These homes should be protected. The problem is that the Forest Service’s own scientists have long concluded that fires have to burn within 40 meters (130 feet) of a structure for it to ignite. Here, the Forest Service is proposing to log (and likely build roads) up to a half mile and uphill from any structures. A similar logging proposal in the Hoosier Ridge roadless area near Breckenridge is also moving ahead. 

One can sympathize with the Forest Service for wanting to do something to address fire risk, especially when people see a landscape of dead and dying trees killed by a years-long bark beetle epidemic. But logging in roadless areas? When the science shows it won’t protect homes? Further, it’s not clear that the beetle-killed trees dramatically change fire risk in surrounding areas. Agency studies in fact show little change in the fire risk from beetle kill. These projects thus seem to spring more from a need to do SOMETHING than a need to do something right.

More dangerous is a relentless campaign mounted by underground coal mines seeking to carve out tens of thousands of acres of roadless lands from the rule’s protection near Paonia, Colorado. As part of this campaign, the Oxbow mine submitted late last year a plan to bulldoze more than two miles of road and build dozens of well pads in a roadless area to support a mine expansion. The governor of Colorado is finalizing a petition that could result in a rule offering up these roadless lands as a sacrifice to the coal company’s owners. And the coal mines are pulling out all the stops: getting local pols to beat up the Governor for not moving fast enough to support the mine expansions, and pressing the local congressman, self-proclaimed blue-dog Democrat John Salazar, to join the "coal caucus." Never mind that as soon as the coal seam runs out the company—and jobs—will be gone, along with the wildlife and other values of the roadless areas.

Conservationists are not alone in fighting to protect the lands at stake, however. A rep of the Aspen Ski Company—which sees its lifeblood evaporating with global warming—has called Salazar’s enrollment in the coal caucus "appalling." And that same official—Auden Schendler—wrote a barbed letter to the editor of his local paper, pointing out that:  "if you really cared about jobs for Coloradans, you’d find ways to transition coal workers into other well paying jobs, like clean energy development and energy efficiency" because "coal isn’t a growth industry in the U.S., even though we will need and use and prosper from coal power for a long time to come."

The actions and rhetoric coming from Colorado show that whatever the outcome of the March 10 court hearing, the fight for roadless areas won’t be over.  


Ted was an attorney in the Rocky Mountain regional office from 2003–2018. He protected wilderness, roadless areas and the planet's climate on behalf of conservation groups in the Four Corners' states.