Judge scales back ruling on roadless forests
SAN FRANCISCO, California ” A federal magistrate judge on Tuesday scaled back a 2006 decision that reinstated a Clinton-era ban against new road construction and development on millions of acres of national forest.
Two years ago, Judge Elizabeth Laporte in San Francisco invalidated a 2005 Bush administration rule that overturned the 2001 “Roadless Rule,” which protected 58.5 million acres of federal land in about 40 states.
But in August, a federal judge in Wyoming invalidated President Clinton’s Roadless Rule, prompting the Bush administration to request that the two judges modify their conflicting rulings.
In response, Laporte on Tuesday reduced the geographic scope of her 2006 ruling, so that the road construction ban would apply only to national forests in 10 western states. The ban doesn’t apply to national forests in states such as Colorado and Wyoming, because those states are in the district overseen by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, rather than the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Laporte’s move is only a temporary fix. Federal appeals courts in San Francisco and Denver both are expected to rule on the case next year, and road construction rules also could change under President-elect Barack Obama’s incoming administration.
Environmental groups that challenged the Bush administration’s repeal of the Roadless Rule urged the government Tuesday not to weaken protections for about 13.6 million acres of roadless forests in the states no longer covered by Laporte’s 2006 ruling.
Forest Service officials in Washington did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Colorado officials say the legal battle over the roadless area is a big reason they are seeking federal approval of a plan to protect roughly 4 million acres of the forest land in the state. Environmental, hunting and angling groups have urged Gov. Bill Ritter to withdraw the proposal they believe is weaker than the Clinton-era rule.
Ritter, though, calls the plan an insurance policy that will prevent development off most of the land no matter the courts decide.
“This once again shows why it’s so important to get the Colorado rule completed ” so we can take the 2001 rule out of the legal minefield it’s caught in,” Mike King, deputy director of the state Department of Natural Resources, said by e-mail. “We can once and for all put this issue to bed and provide protection for Colorado’s backcountry.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, pledged to keep Colorado’s roadless areas intact until the state plan is completed, state officials have said.
“I’m glad the state is sticking to that interpretation and insisting on protection,” said Steve Smith of The Wilderness office a member of the task force that helped write Colorado’s roadless plan.
Suzanne Jones, director of The Wilderness Society’s regional office in Denver, said she hopes the Bush administration doesn’t use LaPorte’s ruling to justify opening millions of acres of backcountry to development.