Idaho’s blueprint for managing millions of acres of backcountry roadless areas has been upheld by a federal judge, who said the plan won’t degrade habitat for grizzly bears or woodland caribou.
In his ruling, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill of Boise threw out a challenge to the plan filed by environmental groups.
Idaho’s roadless rule would allow temporary roads in some areas to reduce the threat of wildfires near cities and towns, including old growth habitat in North Idaho. But other Forest Service protections for grizzly and caribou will prevent road-building in habitat used by threatened and endangered species, Winmill wrote in his decision.
“Protecting roadless areas is very important to the Forest Service,” Joan Dickerson, roadless coordinator for the agency’s Northern and Intermountain region, said Monday. “We had a lot of players who helped develop this plan as well as defend it.”
The Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club and the Spokane-based Lands Council were among the plan’s challengers. Siding with the Forest Service were other environmental organizations, including the Idaho Conservation League, Trout Unlimited and the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho.
In 2001, the Clinton administration strengthened protections for roadless areas nationwide. Five years later, the state of Idaho petitioned the federal government for more flexibility in managing its roadless areas, particularly where crowded, diseased stands of trees create risks for wildfires.
A collaborative process led by then-Gov. Jim Risch resulted in Idaho’s roadless rule. The rule stepped up protections of 3.2 million acres of roadless areas. Another 5.3 million acres fell into a “backcountry restoration designation,” allowing temporary road construction under certain circumstances, such as reducing the risk of wildfire near populated areas. About 300,000 “special use areas” will be managed according to local forest plans. The remaining 600,000 roadless acres will be managed as “general forest,” permitting logging, mining and road-building.
The area opened to road-building includes 5,000 acres on the Caribou-Targhee National Forest in southeastern Idaho, where roads could be built to access phosphate deposits. The Forest Service endorsed Idaho’s roadless rule in 2008.
“It recognizes all the hard work that people went through … to develop a common-sense approach to managing roadless areas in Idaho,” said Scott Horngren, an attorney for the American Forest Resource Council in Portland.
But others said the rule weakens protections for Idaho’s backcountry.
“It’s a real shame that some of the most spectacular backcountry in America will be denied the level of protection enjoyed by other states,” said Craig Gehrke, The Wilderness Society’s regional director in Idaho.