Do Roads Belong Here? New threats to Idaho’s backcountry forests

We prefer to inform you about advances in wild land conservation, but this week that opportunity has been denied for Idaho’s magnificent backcountry forests.

At the end of January, a federal district court upheld a dangerous federal rule that eliminates protection for 400,000 acres of Idaho’s wild backcountry and exposes more than 5 million acres in the state to greater threat of development.

The decision puts some of Idaho’s most precious forests, as well as important grizzly and caribou habitat, at risk to damaging road building and mining activities.

The ruling by the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho on the 2008 Idaho Roadless Rule allows the State of Idaho to institute its own version of a national roadless forest policy that has protected some 58.5 million acres of forests across the country when it was adopted in 2001.

The Idaho Rule exempts the state from protections guaranteed to roadless areas in all other states in the lower 48, explained Craig Gehrke, Idaho regional director of The Wilderness Society.  “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.”

Hanson Meadows Roadless Area, Idaho. Photo by John McCarthy.“In the long run this means less clean water and less fish and wildlife in Idaho,” said Marv Hoyt, Idaho director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a partner of The Wilderness Society. “The Idaho Roadless Rule traded away protections for areas facing real, imminent threats such as the Sage Creek and Huckleberry Basin roadless areas, where new, polluting, open-pit phosphate mines are planned.”

The court decision is also bad news for bears and caribou.

“The Idaho rule allows logging and roadbuilding in core grizzly and caribou habitat, further threatening the survival of these endangered species,” said Mike Petersen, executive director of The Lands Council.  “The wild Selkirk Mountains are the only place in the lower 48 states that have caribou and this decision puts them at greater risk.”

The specifics of the case centered around a challenge by conservationists that the federal government violated provisions of the Endangered Species Act and other federal laws and regulations in exempting the State of Idaho from the national roadless rule. The district court ruled that the government provided sufficient assurances of its intent to abide by the laws.

To date, The Wilderness Society has opposed such state-specific rules, because they weaken the uniform, national protections provided by the 2001 Roadless Rule.   

A whitetail deer in Kelly Creek Roadless Area, Idaho. Photo by John McCarthy.
Hanson Meadows Roadless Area, Idaho. Photo by John McCarthy.