Court upholds Clinton's 'roadless' rule in national forests

By Seattle Times staff and wire services


The Clinton administration's last-minute decision to ban logging and road construction on 58.5 million acres of national forests stands as law at least for now.
A federal appeals court yesterday lifted an injunction that suspended the "roadless rule," which banned road building or other development in roadless parcels of 5,000 acres or more 2 percent of the nation's land mass.

The rule, adopted in the final days of Clinton's presidency, was to have taken effect in May 2001 but was stopped by U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge of Idaho in response to a lawsuit filed by the state of Idaho, Idaho's Kootenai Indian tribe and logging interests. The Idaho judge said the rule was hurried through the administrative process without informed debate.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, in a 2-1 ruling yesterday, said the tribe, the logging industry and snowmobile groups were not irreparably harmed by the rule.

"Unlike the resource destruction that attends development, and that is bound to have permanent repercussions, restrictions on forest development and human intervention can be removed if later proved to be more harmful than helpful," Judge Ronald Gould wrote.

Environmentalists hailed the decision, claiming it "puts us over the hump" in their fight with the timber industry and the Bush administration over whether to protect these lands permanently.

"I haven't felt this good in months," said Mike Anderson, with The Wilderness Society in Seattle. "Not only did the court lift the injunction, but they did it in a way that effectively finishes the case. They went to the merits of all the legal issues and basically disposed of all of them."

The decision yesterday effectively stalls nearly 30 timber sales that would have meant new roads and the logging of roughly 500 million board feet of timber on tens of thousands of acres of the nation's largest forest Alaska's 17 million-acre Tongass National Forest. About 9 million acres of the Tongass are now designated roadless.

In Washington and Oregon, roughly 4 million acres had been proposed for protection under the roadless initiative, but road construction already was banned under forest plans on more than half that land. Of the remaining portions, only 12 miles of road were planned for construction.

"Most of the imminent threats to roadless areas were in Alaska," said Sue Libenson, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Coalition, an umbrella network of environmental groups. "Some of these sales were in really prized areas that communities had been fighting to protect for years."

But Chris West, vice president of timber-industry group American Forest Resource Council, described the ruling as an expected setback handed down by a liberal appeals court a move that simply paves the way for other legal challenges from other states to move ahead.

Technically, the appeals court struck down only a preliminary injunction, which had banned implementation of the rule while Lodge heard arguments in the lawsuit. Lodge's case still must proceed, although environmentalists feel confident that the appeals court eliminated the foundation of their opponents' case.

But there are several other cases in different districts, which may take years to resolve.

And it's too soon to say how the Bush administration will react. Timber, mining and off-road-vehicle users have lobbied the administration to change the rule, and the Forest Service recently has been "working toward developing a rule that would stand up in court," agency spokeswoman Heidi Valetkevitch said yesterday.

"This is not over," West said.

The millions of acres protected by the roadless rule are predominately in the West, but stretch from Alaska's Chugach National Forest to Florida's Apalachicola National Forest.

The rule was adopted after a high-profile lobbying campaign by a coalition of environmental groups. There were 600 public meetings and 2 million public comments that overwhelmingly favored protection for these lands.

But the timber industry repeatedly has claimed Clinton's team did a "shoddy job" crafting it, and was not thorough in its analysis.

"The evidence is clear the public did not have the information to thoroughly comment on this proposal," West said.

But the 9th Circuit appeared to disagree yesterday, claiming in its decision that the Clinton administration "abided the general statutory requirements." Based on preliminary evidence, the court determined the lawsuit did not have "a strong likelihood of success."


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