A federal appeals court Wednesday blocked road construction on more than 40 million acres of pristine national forests.
The decision by a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstates a 2001 rule put in place by President Bill Clinton just before he left office prohibiting commercial logging, mining and other development on 58.5 million acres of national forest in 38 states and Puerto Rico. A subsequent Bush administration rule, however, cleared the way for more commercial activity.
The latest ruling, issued in San Francisco, sides with Washington, several other Western states and environmental groups that sued the Forest Service after it reversed the so-called “roadless rule” in 2005.
“This is a great victory for Washingtonians, who have long stood for the protection of our roadless areas,” said Gov. Chris Gregoire in a statement. “These special places provide clean water, fish and wildlife habitat and priceless recreational opportunities.
Wednesday’s decision does not affect 9.3 million acres of roadless areas in Idaho, said David Hensley, Gov. Butch Otter’s legal counsel. The Gem State developed its own roadless rule under the 2005 Bush policy, which allowed states to assert more control over their roadless areas.
Crafted by former Gov. Jim Risch, Idaho’s roadless plan stepped up protections in some roadless areas, while allowing temporary road building elsewhere, particularly for thinning trees in fire-prone areas.
Idaho is second only to Alaska in the number of roadless acres within the state, and its roadless plan faces a separate federal court challenge.
Wednesday’s ruling may set a precedent for the Idaho court battle, said Mike Petersen, director of the Lands Council in Spokane, which is one of the environmental groups fighting the plan.
Petersen said Idaho’s roadless plan is flawed because it doesn’t offer enough habitat protection for endangered species.
“When you looked at grizzly and caribou recovery areas in the Selkirks and the Cabinet Mountains, 58 percent of the roadless areas in the recovery zones would have been open to road building,” Petersen said.
The Obama administration already had ordered a one-year moratorium on most road building in national forests. Justin DeJong, a spokesman for Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, said “the Obama administration supports conservation of roadless areas in our national forests, and this decision today reaffirms the protection of these resources.”
Last month, Vilsack approved a timber sale in a roadless area of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. The sale allows Pacific Log and Lumber to clearcut about 380 acres in the Tongass, the largest federal forest. About nine miles of roads will be constructed to allow the logging. Tongass was exempted from roadless protection in a separate 2003 decision.