Idaho Roadless Rule Challenged in Federal Court

Jan 16, 2009

Conservation groups filed a lawsuit today in the U.S. District Court challenging the Idaho Roadless Rule. According to the lawsuit, the Bush administration violated laws to remove protection for 400,000 acres of Idaho roadless lands and to weaken protection for an additional 5 million acres of pristine Idaho lands.

The U.S. Forest Service itself predicts the Idaho rule, which affects all 9.3 million acres of Idaho roadless lands, will more than triple road construction — up to 50 miles of new roads in 15 years — and almost double logging up to 15,000 acres.

“Idaho should not be the only state in the lower 48 to have roadless forest protection downgraded by the Bush Administration, ” said Craig Gehrke, regional director in Idaho for The Wilderness Society. “The people we represent who care about public land want all of Idaho’s best forests to get the same protection as the rest of the country, and they want environmental laws to be followed.”

Idaho has more roadless national forest lands than any other state, except Alaska. The final Idaho rule went into effect Oct. 16, 2008. Only Idaho adopted a state roadless plan during the Bush administration.

The suit was filed by The Wilderness Society, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and The Lands Council. The groups are represented by EarthJustice.

The final Idaho plan is intended to replace the strong and popular 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, adopted to protect more than 58 million acres in 39 states.

The lawsuit claims the U.S. Forest Service did not follow laws by:

  • Removing any protection on 400,000 roadless acres, to allow logging, phosphate mining and road building, without specific environmental effects analysis — to examine effects on water quality, wildlife and other resources — under the National Environmental Policy Act;
  • Overriding local forest plans drafted under the National Forest Management Act, to remove protections on 13,000 acres recommended for wilderness and to prohibit any additional, future recommendations for wilderness in forest plans;
  • Weakening protections for woodland caribou, salmon, steelhead, bull trout and grizzly bears listed under the Endangered Species Act, and putting sensitive species such as Yellowstone and Bonneville cutthroat trout at high risk.
  • Creating additional exceptions to allow road building and logging within the 5 million acres to be classified as “backcountry”

“The more we’ve reviewed the Idaho rule the more concerned we are about the loss of protection for water quality, fish and wildlife habitat and wilderness,” said Marv Hoyt, Idaho director for Greater Yellowstone Coalition. “Phosphate strip mining on 5,700 roadless acres will lead to even more selenium poisoning of streams, and another 2,700 acres of recommended wilderness in Winegar Hole next to Yellowstone will lose protection, as just two examples here in eastern Idaho.”.

The Idaho plan also opens up an additional 5 million acres to logging and road construction, claiming to reduce wildfire risk. The 2001 Rule allowed, and the conservation plaintiffs support, thinning forests and reducing fuels around buildings, shown by science to reduce forest fire threats to homes and communities. In Idaho now, by contrast, logging and roads can spread far from communities, based on vague assertions about fire risk and without adequate scientific basis.

“The majority of new logging in roadless forests will likely be up north, including where it could affect the last of the nation’s woodland caribou and a remnant population of grizzly bears,” said Mike Petersen, executive director of The Lands Council in Spokane.

“The 2001 Roadless Conservation Rule established long overdue, unified protection for our roadless forests and set the national standards,” said Niel Lawrence of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Olympia. “The Bush administration not only undercut those protections in Idaho, it overran key environmental protection laws in the process,” he added.

photo: Heart Lake in Mallard Larkins Roadless Area, Clearwater National Forest, Idaho. Photo by Craig Gehrke.