Forest victory - Roadless Rule upheld in Wyoming

Upper Hoback Basin

Diane Corsick

A federal appeals court in Denver has ended more than a decade of legal uncertainty for nearly 50 million acres of National Forest roadless areas located in 38 states across the U.S.

On February 16, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously decided to deny the State of Wyoming’s final effort to convince the court to reconsider its historic October 21, 2011 ruling that upheld the legality of the Roadless Area Conservation Rule.   The Wilderness Society, represented by Earthjustice, played in an important role in the case by intervening in defense of the Roadless Rule.

The Clinton Administration adopted the Roadless Rule in January 2001 after the most extensive public involvement process in Forest Service history.  The Roadless Rule prohibited road building and timber harvesting in all of the remaining national forest roadless areas, allowing them to remain wild and open to hiking, mountain biking, hunting and other types of recreation.  The Roadless Rule is one of the most significant conservation actions ever taken by the federal government, along with the 1964 Wilderness Act and the 1980 Alaska Lands Act.

Roadless Rule has been the target of attack since the day it was signed, including an effort by the Bush Administration to repeal the rule and multiple lawsuits filed by state governments and special interests.   The most serious legal attack was the State of Wyoming’s lawsuit, which prompted a federal judge in Wyoming to issue decisions in 2003 and 2008 invalidating the Roadless Rule nationwide.   The Tenth Circuit’s reversal of the lower court conclusively rejected the legal claims that Wyoming and others have made in opposition to the Roadless Rule. 

While there is still a theoretical possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court could step in and overrule the Tenth Circuit, that appears to be a very unlikely scenario since there is no legal conflict to resolve.   However, several threats to the Roadless Rule remain.  For example, the State of Alaska has filed another legal challenge to the rule, and Congress is currently considering legislation that would eliminate the Roadless Rule altogether.  Nevertheless, the latest court decision clearly represents a major victory for roadless area protection.