Roadless ruling latest salvo in forest management fight |

Roadless ruling latest salvo in forest management fight

Bob Berwyn

The raging battle over the management of public lands took another twist late last week when a federal appeals court upheld the legality of the Clinton-era roadless conservation rule, a Forest Service policy that bans road-building, logging and other extractive uses on about 58.5 million acres of federal land.The rule could potentially affect four million acres of Forest Service land in Colorado, including 640,000 acres on the White River National Forest.Locally, the rule has implications for how the Forest Service will manage areas identified as roadless in the recently updated White River National Forest plan, including thousands of acres in Eagle and Summit counties.Though there aren’t many logging projects slated for the White River, there has been some debate about roadless areas adjacent to ski areas like Vail and Copper Mountain. In their appeals of the forest plan, the resorts claimed roadless designations should not prevent ski area expansions and operations in parts of the forest allocated for lift-served skiing even when those areas overlap with roadless parcels.Forest Service officials have said that ski resort operations and roadless areas are not mutually exclusive, but the national rule could make it more difficult to develop ski terrain in roadless areas. In addition to its appeals of the forest plan, the ski industry filed comments opposing the roadless rule.Motorized recreation groups also felt they had a lot to lose. In challenging the measure, groups like the Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition claimed the rule would further erode the ability of four-wheelers and ATV riders to utilize public lands.Concerns also came from some elected officials, notably Western Republicans, who said the rule could hinder Forest Service efforts to reduce wildfire hazards around communities. But the final rule included specific provisions to enable thinning and other fire mitigation efforts in the wildland-urban interface zone. Other concerns focused on the economies of rural towns dependent on logging and milling. The road ban could shut off new sources of timber in those areas, opponents said.Clinton legacy?Former Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck signed the roadless rule into effect in January 2001, just days before the end of the Clinton administration. Subsequently, a U.S. District judge in Idaho blocked the rule in May 2001 after the state of Idaho, Boise Cascade Corporation ( a logging company), the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho and motorized recreational groups sued the federal government, charging that the Forest Service violated public input rules when it developed the roadless policy.The Bush administration refused to defend the rule in court. Instead, a coalition of conservation groups, led by Earthjustice, took up the fight as intervenors, appealing the injunction to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.But the three-judge panel agreed with the environmentalists: &quotUpon our review of the record, we are persuaded that the Forest Service did provide the public with extensive, relevant information on the Roadless Rule. We also conclude that the Forest Service allowed adequate time for meaningful public debate and comment,&quot Judge Ronald Gould wrote in the ruling.The court also rejected arguments that the Forest Service failed to consider an adequate range of alternatives in the rule-making process.As with any legal decision, it may take a battery of lawyers to figure out what it all means. Colorado Wild activist Rocky Smith, who has been following the roadless issue closely, says there the ramifications of the appeals court ruling are far from clear.&quotThere is currently considerable debate among lawyers over what this ruling means,&quot Smith says. &quotAs I understand it, the appeals court lifted the injunction barring the rule from going into effect, which the district court had imposed, but because the Bush administration doesn’t defend the rule, it may still not be in effect.&quotAccording to Greenwire, an environmental news service, it’s not clear whether the U.S. District Court in Idaho has to give an order to reinstate the rule, or whether the appellate court’s decision alone is enough, according to Patrick Parenteau, who represented Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics in the case.Parenteau, a law professor, says environmentalists are taking the position that the Bush administration should issue immediate orders to the field to end any work under way in roadless areas.Agency officials say they have been working with conservation, recreation and industry groups to build some consensus on how to implement the rule.&quotOver the last year, we have been working toward a responsible and balanced approach that fairly addresses concerns raised by states, tribes, and local communities impacted by the rule,&quot Agriculture Department Under Secretary Mark Rey said in a statement.But motorized users are not convinced. &quotWe’re disappointed,&quot Clark Collins, executive director of the BlueRibbon Coalition, said in an interview with Greenwire. Collins says his group is hopeful that the Idaho judge will still be able to block the rule when it comes back for review.According to Greenwire, Collins is also pinning his hopes on the theory that the Bush administration will not rush to implement the roadless rule in any form.Key to sustainabilityWhen the Forest Service originally proposed the rule, the agency proclaimed that roadless areas are critically important for the long-term ecological sustainability of the nation’s forests. They serve as reference areas for research, as barriers against invasive plant and animal species that harm native species, and to protect water quality and aquatic strongholds, forest service planners said.Roadless areas also provide important habitat and migration routes for numerous wildlife species, and are particularly important for forest carnivores and predators that require large home ranges, including grizzly bears, wolves and lynx.The current national forest road system includes 380,000 miles of road, enough road to circle the globe more than 15 times. But the agency currently has a road reconstruction and maintenance backlog of approximately $8.4 billion. Part of the rationale for the roadless initiative was the agency’s inability to maintain current roads – much less build any new ones.Some of the language in the appeals court ruling appeared to legally bolster the agency’s ecological rationale for the rule. &quotRoadless areas in our national forests also help conserve some of the last unspoiled wilderness in our country. The unspoiled forest provides not only sheltering shade for the visitor and sustenance for its diverse wildlife but also pure water and fresh oxygen for humankind,&quot the panel declared.The case will now return to U.S. District Court in Idaho for further review, but any future decisions by that judge will have to be consistent with the appeals court ruling, according to Tom Fry, with the regional office of the Wilderness Society in Denver.The Wilderness Society is one of the conservation groups that has taken the lead locally in tracking the roadless rule and figuring out how it will be implemented and what effects it will have in Colorado.&quotThe Forest Service will have to manage in accordance with the roadless rule. The practical, immediate effect will be fairly minimal since the agency has not been proposing much activity in roadless areas for the past couple years&quot Fry said in an e-mail interview last week.Fry says seven other lawsuits challenging the roadless rule are pending in Wyoming, North Dakota, Utah, Alaska, and Washington, DC. Along with the legal threats, Fry says other Bush administration decisions could also undercut the intent of the rule.&quotOther actions, like the draft rules for forest management and categorical exclusions for thinning projects, could have indirect effects on implementation, especially by speeding up thinning projects in roadless areas,&quot he says. Additionally, the administration may also move to simply rewrite the roadless rule altogether. More than a year ago, the Forest Service requested public comment on 10 questions relating to roadless area management, Fry says.The opinion from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is available at:

Support Local Journalism