Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Roadless rule fight ends

The long fight over a far-reaching federal regulation aimed at preserving roadless areas of the national forests ended Monday when the U.S. Supreme Court decided it would not review an appeals court decision upholding it.

The court's decision means that the rule can go into effect more than ten years after it was finalized by the Clinton administration.

"The Roadless Rule is now indisputably the law of the land," Jamie Williams, the president of the Wilderness Society, said in a statement.

Getting to that point required battles in two federal courts of appeal and the hostility of the George W. Bush administration, which declined to defend it in one appeals court, tried to replace it with a rule that would establish protections on the basis of state preferences, and exempted the nation's largest temperate forest - Alaska's Tongass National Forest - entirely from the rule.

The Bush administration also managed to secure exemptions from the rule for Idaho and Colorado.

Roadless areas are considered to be biologically important because they allow for the preservation of cold-water fish habitat and the sustained connection between a variety of habitats for native wildlife populations.

Areas of forest not sliced up by roads are also more resistant to wildfire and provide refuge for species impacted by human activities elsewhere and by global climate change.

The Forest Service first initiated efforts to protect them during the 1920s, when it set aside "primitive areas", and by the 1960s federal law recognized their ecological significance when Congress enacted the Wilderness Act.

That landmark law required the Forest Service to protect roadless areas pending Congressional decisions about which of the areas to designate as wilderness, and in the 1970s the agency completed an evaluation of its acreage that qualified.

The Clinton administration imposed a moratorium on additional road-building in the national forest roadless areas in 1999 and then, just before leaving office in Jan. 2011 and after a lengthy process that involved the most extensive public involvement process in U.S. history, finalized the regulation to protect them.

Two federal appeals courts later upheld the validity of the Roadless Rule against attacks from motorized recreation advocates, grazing, mining, and timber interests, and a small number of municipalities, counties, and states.

Critics argued that the regulation intruded on Congress' exclusive authority to designate wilderness areas.

The Roadless Rule affects 58.5 million acres of the 193 million-acre national forest system.
There are more than 380,000 miles of roads, mostly built to support timber extraction activities, in the national forests.

The regulation does not require closure of existing roads, does not prevent off-road vehicle use in the national forests, and does not affect opportunities to conduct mining operations in the national forests. It also does not prevent holders of grazing permits from allowing their livestock to roam on federal government-owned forests.

The Supreme Court's orders denying review came in Colorado Mining Association v. U.S. 
 Department of Agriculture, No. 11-1384 and Wyoming v. U.S. Department of Agriculture, No. 11-1378.