Federal Appeals Court Upholds Roadless Area Protections


President Obama has pledged to support and defend nationwide protections


Kristen Boyles, Earthjustice, (206) 343-7340, ext. 33

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals today affirmed protection for over 40 million acres of wild national forests and grasslands from new road building, logging, and development. The decision puts an end to the Bush administration’s efforts to open these last great natural areas to development. Today’s ruling protects the majority of national forest roadless areas in the country.

“Americans love the wild forests and rivers our country has been blessed with,” said Earthjustice attorney Kristen Boyles. “From campers, hunters, hikers, fishermen, and bird watchers to cities and towns that rely on clean, mountain-fed drinking water, we all stand and cheer that the court today protected our national roadless areas.”

The appellate court explained that the Bush rule it struck down, “had the effect of permanently repealing uniform, nationwide, substantive protections that were afforded to inventoried roadless areas, and replacing them with a [variable] regime of the type the agency had rejected as inadequate a few years earlier.” The court repeated its earlier finding that “there can be no doubt that the 58.5 million acres subject to the Roadless Rule, if implemented, would have greater protection if the Roadless Rule stands.”  The 2001 Rule has, the court emphasized, “immeasurable benefits from a conservationist standpoint.”

Today’s ruling not only affirms and reinstates the most popular environmental rule of all time, it frees the Obama administration to pursue President Obama’s pledge to “support and defend” the 2001 Rule — including appealing an adverse ruling from a Wyoming federal court, ending the roadless protection exemption for the Tongass National Forest, and refraining from enacting specific state legislation, like that proposed in Colorado.

In 2009, 127 eminent scientists, four governors, 121 members of Congress, 25 Senators, and 119 outdoor recreation businesses sent letters appealing to President Obama and Agriculture Secretary Vilsack to protect and defend roadless areas.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Boyles said. “This decision halts the Bush administration assault on roadless areas, but the Obama administration should now take the next steps necessary to make protection permanent.”

The fate of the Roadless Rule has been caught up in the federal courts and the politics of changing Presidents for almost a decade.  Originally adopted by the Clinton administration after an environmental review that included 600 public hearings and over 1.6 million public comments, the Bush administration actively colluded to get rid of it. Despite these efforts, and due to deep public support for roadless area protection, only seven miles of roads were built and 535 acres of trees logged in roadless areas since 2001.

The timber industry first challenged the Roadless Rule in federal court in Idaho. The Bush administration refused to defend it, and the court temporarily suspended the Roadless Rule. That suspension came to an end in 2003 when environmental groups, represented by Earthjustice attorneys, won an appeal in the Ninth Circuit that reinstated the Rule’s protections. Separate litigation in federal court in Wyoming then again suspended the Roadless Rule, and appellate court review in the Tenth Circuit was pending when the Bush administration repealed the Rule outright in 2005 and replaced it with one of their own that invited a state by state approach. It was this 2005 Bush rule that was found to be illegal by the 9th Circuit today.

The challenge to the Bush rule was brought by 20 regional and national environmental groups, again represented by Earthjustice, joining parallel efforts by four states. In September 2006, a federal court in California struck down the Bush repeal. 

Today’s ruling does not address ongoing Roadless Rule litigation in Wyoming or the specific exemption for the Tongass National Forest in Alaska engineered by the Bush administration.  Both these areas must be addressed to ensure full, nationwide roadless area protection.  

In the challenge to the repeal of the Roadless Rule, Earthjustice represented The Wilderness Society, California Wilderness Coalition, Forests Forever Foundation, Northcoast Environmental Center, Oregon Wild, Sitka Conservation Society, Siskiyou Project, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, Sierra Club, National Audubon Society, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Center for Biological Diversity, Environmental Protection Information Center, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, Defenders of Wildlife, Pacific Rivers Council, Idaho Conservation League, Humane Society of the United States, Conservation NW, and Greenpeace, and joined with the states of California, Oregon, New Mexico, and Washington.  

Read the decision (PDF)

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