WASHINGTON — The Wilderness Society and 19 other environmental organizations notched a huge victory today when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco affirmed protection for almost 40 million acres of wild national forests and grasslands from new road building, logging, and development. The decision puts an end to the Bush administration’s efforts to open these last great natural areas to development. Today’s ruling protects the majority of national forest roadless areas in the country.
“Americans love the wild forests and rivers our country has been blessed with,” said Kristen Boyles, an attorney for Earthjustice — the nonprofit environmental law firm representing the plaintiffs in this case. “From campers, hunters, hikers, fishermen, and bird watchers to cities and towns that rely on clean, mountain-fed drinking water, we all stand and cheer that the court today protected our national roadless areas.”
Michael Francis, The Wilderness Society’s national forest program director in Washington D.C., said that “the court’s decision reinstates the most popular environmental rule of all time. It marks a virtual end to the Bush administration’s attacks on the 2001 roadless rule. It also frees this administration to pursue President Obama’s pledge to ‘support and defend’ the 2001 rule. We trust the president will welcome the ruling as much as we do.”
The appellate court explained that the Bush rule it struck down, “had the effect of permanently repealing uniform, nationwide, substantive protections that were afforded to inventoried roadless areas, and replacing them with a [variable] regime of the type the agency had rejected as inadequate a few years earlier.” The court repeated its earlier finding that “there can be no doubt that the 58.5 million acres subject to the Roadless Rule, if implemented, would have greater protection if the Roadless Rule stands.” The 2001 rule has, the court emphasized, “immeasurable benefits from a conservationist standpoint.”
In 2009, 127 eminent scientists, four governors, 121 members of Congress, 25 Senators, and 119 outdoor recreation businesses sent letters appealing to President Obama and Agriculture Secretary Vilsack to protect and defend roadless areas.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” said Mike Anderson, a senior resource analyst with The Wilderness Society in Seattle, Washington. “This decision halts the Bush administration assault on roadless areas, but the Obama administration must now take the next steps necessary to make protection permanent and nationwide.”
Specifically, the next step for Obama would be to instruct the Department of Justice to appeal a suit sitting in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, where another Bush hold-over effort seeks to nullify the entire 2001 roadless rule.
With the roadless rule now back in effect in all areas except for Idaho and the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, The Wilderness Society asserts that a proposed state-specific rule pending in Colorado is not needed.
“Coloradans overwhelmingly supported the 2001 national rule and welcome its reinstatement with open arms,” said Suzanne Jones, the Colorado regional director for The Wilderness Society. “While one final court challenge to the 2001 rule remains, there is no need for a state-specific rule like the watered-down Colorado proposal that has just been released for public comment.”
The fate of the roadless rule has been caught up in the federal courts and the politics of changing presidents for almost a decade. Originally adopted by the Clinton administration after an environmental review that included 600 public hearings and over 1.6 million public comments, the Bush administration actively colluded to get rid of it. Despite these efforts, and due to deep public support for roadless area protection, only seven miles of roads were built and 535 acres of trees logged in roadless areas since 2001.
In the challenge to the repeal of the roadless rule, Earthjustice represented The Wilderness Society, California Wilderness Coalition, Forests Forever Foundation, Northcoast Environmental Center, Oregon Wild, Sitka Conservation Society, Siskiyou Project, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, Sierra Club, National Audubon Society, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Center for Biological Diversity, Environmental Protection Information Center, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, Defenders of Wildlife, Pacific Rivers Council, Idaho Conservation League, Humane Society of the United States, Conservation NW, and Greenpeace, and joined with the states of California, Oregon, New Mexico, and Washington.