In a reversal of its prior stance, and for the first time, the Bush administration has provided a legal defense of the environmental impact statement supporting the Roadless Area Conservation rule. The rule, adopted by the Forest Service in January 2000, would protect 58.5 million acres of national forest and grasslands, some of the last unprotected, truly wild places owned in common by all Americans. In responding to a series of lawsuits over the past 18 months in which timber, mining and other interests have sought to overturn the rule, the Bush administration has failed to defend the merits of the rule in court. That failure has left the responsibility for defending the rule to environmental groups which have intervened in the industry-led lawsuits.
On Monday, the Bush administration inexplicably reversed direction and filed a brief for the first time defending the rule on its merits in two consolidated cases in North Dakota, one filed by a group that includes oil and gas interests and the other filed by the state of North Dakota.
The administration failed to mount a similar defense of the rule when it was challenged by the state of Idaho and Boise Cascade timber company in an Idaho federal court. In that case Judge Edward Lodge granted a preliminary injunction on May 10, 2001, keeping the rule from taking effect. This injunction order is currently on appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals by a coalition of environmental groups represented by Earthjustice, but the administration has not appeared to defend the rule in that appeal either.
The government’s position in favor of the Roadless Rule’s EIS in the North Dakota case is the first legal defense of the rule articulated by this administration. It comes against a history of the Bush administration first administratively blocking the rule from taking effect, then failing to defend the rule in the Idaho case and appeal, and ultimately announcing that it would amend the rule. Administration officials also have sought to weaken other roadless area protections through a series of bureaucratic directives and have laid plans to log in roadless areas that would have enjoyed protection had the administration implemented and successfully defended by the rule.
“Where were the Forest Service and the Department of Justice when this rule was challenged in Idaho? Where were they when it was enjoined and when that injunction was appealed?” asked Todd True, an attorney with Earthjustice. “The administration has shirked its legal duty to defend and uphold the law in every case. Instead, it has apparently chosen a political strategy to use the courts selectively to undercut important environmental protections like the Roadless rule.”
Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Congress’ strongest advocate for the roadless rule, said, “With this filing, the administration has finally taken a step in the right direction in enforcing the roadless rule. I hope that the Department of Justice will review its position on other on-going roadless rule litigation and make good on Attorney General Ashcroft’s promise to defend the rule. Our remaining roadless areas are a precious legacy that require enlightened stewardship. The Roadless Area Conservation rule will usher in a new, balanced framework for national forest management.”