A federal district court today ordered reinstatement of the Clinton era roadless rule to protect almost 50 million acres of wild national forests and grasslands from road building, logging, and development. The court order is a stunning victory for all Americans who value America's great natural areas and reverses the Bush administration's efforts to open these last great natural areas to development interests.
According to the court, "Defendants are enjoined from taking any further action contrary to the Roadless Rule without undertaking environmental analysis consistent with this opinion." The court noted that in adopting the Rule which the court reinstated today, the Forest Service itself found that the Rule was "necessary to protect the social and ecological values and characteristics of . . . roadless areas from road construction . . . and timber harvesting activities. . . . Adoption of [the Roadless Rule] ensures that inventoried roadless areas will be managed in a manner that sustains their values now and for future generations."
The court found that in repealing the roadless rule, the Bush administration failed to comply with basic legal requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act: "this court concludes that the Forest Service failed adequately to consider the environmental and species impacts when it [repealed the Roadless Rule] in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act."
The court continued: "to conclude that a regulation that effects a major change in the way roadless areas in national forests are regulated nationwide from the prior regulation that it replaces does not constitute a repeal with potentially significant environmental effects would ignore reality."
"Americans love the great natural areas our country has been blessed with," said Earthjustice attorney Kristen Boyles. "From hunters, hikers, fishermen, and bird watchers, to cities and towns that rely on clean, mountain-fed drinking water, the last great roadless natural areas in our national forests deserve preservation. As America grows, so does the need to preserve these natural areas -- because they're not making these kind of natural areas anymore."
Conservation groups, represented by a team of Earthjustice attorneys, brought the legal challenge to the Bush administration policies, joining parallel efforts by four states which brought a separate but similar challenge to the Bush administration plan.
"The sad fact is that the Bush administration gave a timber industry lobbyist a high White House appointment and put him in charge of reversing the government's policy to protect our last great roadless natural areas," said Boyles of Earthjustice. "They made these changes in a flatly illegal way and the court caught them."
The 2005 Bush administration roadless repeal, adopted with no environmental analysis and limited public input, replaced a Clinton era rule adopted in January 2001 after a three-year process that included 600 public hearings and 1.6 million public comments. In addition to repealing the roadless rule, the Bush rule invited governors to submit petitions recommending management schemes for the national forests in their states. Five states (Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, New Mexico, California) have lodged such petitions, and all have called for protection for all roadless areas in their states. Other states, including Oregon and Colorado, are facing Bush administration plans to log or develop oil and gas in roadless areas.
Today's ruling doesn't address the roadless areas in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. In 2003, the Bush administration exempted the Tongass from the roadless rule in a separate procedure. The exemption made little sense then and even less now. About five million acres in the Chugach National Forest in Alaska are once again protected by today's ruling.
Read the opinion (PDF)