Lawyers from Earthjustice and Natural Resources Defense Council today filed court papers opposing two lawsuits that seek to overturn the U.S. Forest Service's new rule protecting pristine national forest lands. They represent the Idaho Conservation League, Idaho Rivers United, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, Oregon Natural Resources Council, Pacific Rivers Council, and Defenders of Wildlife.
The legal filings come in response to lawsuits initiated last month in Idaho's federal district court. The first suit was filed by Boise Cascade, Boise and Valley Counties of Idaho, a handful of livestock companies and off-road vehicle groups, and the Kootenai Tribe. The second was filed by the State of Idaho and Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne. Both ask the court to overturn the new rule protecting roadless areas.
"We want to make sure that the many Americans who favor protecting our last pristine forests have their voices heard in court, and we also want to guard against any hint of political interference," said Earthjustice lawyer Tim Preso, who is representing the groups.
The filing comes on the heels of the Bush Administration's announcement on Monday (Feb. 5, 2001) that the effective date for the popular forest rule would be delayed by 60 days until May 12, 2001, while the administration reviews the rule.
"The delay of the rule by the Bush Administration makes it all the more imperative that conservationists intervene in these lawsuits to defend the rule," said Nathaniel Lawrence of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who is co-counsel for the conservation groups.
"The roadless rule is one of this country's greatest conservation initiatives, akin to the establishment of Yellowstone as our first national park," said Craig Gehrke of The Wilderness Society. "We will work to defend the rule whenever and wherever it is challenged."
Roadless areas are portions of the national forests that remain undamaged by logging and other developments. They provide habitat for sensitive wildlife species, protect watersheds for drinking water, and offer abundant opportunities for hunting, fishing, hiking, and backpacking.
"Roadless areas produce clean water, and that means great habitat for fish," said Sara Denniston of Idaho Rivers United. "Leaving roadless areas undeveloped goes a long way toward protecting the blue ribbon fisheries of many Idaho rivers, including Kelly Creek, Cayuse Creek, the upper Middle Fork Payette River, Long Canyon Creek, lower Deadwood, part of the St. Joe, and many others."
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 last month 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 a clear majority favored establishing new protections for roadless lands.
The public comment mirrored the results of public polling on the question of protecting roadless areas, including polling of Idaho residents. A poll taken in Idaho last March found that two-thirds supported protecting the state's roadless lands, which encompass approximately 9 million acres.
"It's a shame that Governor Kempthorne is bucking the will of a majority of his constituents by challenging the forest protection rule in court," said John McCarthy of the Idaho Conservation League. "The people of Idaho know that they have something special that is rare indeed in most of the rest of the country and the world – large expanses of pristine forest lands – and they want to keep it that way."
The Boise Cascade and State of Idaho lawsuits represent just the latest round of legal challenges to the Forest Service's roadless area protection initiative. Last year, these same parties sued to stop the roadless area rulemaking process before a final rule could be issued. Conservationists intervened to defend against both of those lawsuits, and ultimately both lawsuits were dismissed by the Idaho court on the ground that they were premature.
"By opposing these legal assaults on the last unroaded forests in America, we hope to protect these national treasures for all Americans to enjoy, and for the wildlife that need them to survive," said Mike Leahy of Defenders of Wildlife.
"Protecting roadless areas is one of the wisest decisions the Forest Service has ever made, and it will appear even wiser a generation from now," added Roger Singer, director of the Northern Rockies chapter of the Sierra Club. "It is disappointing to see these constant delaying gimmicks at the state and federal level that blatantly ignore the will of the people."