The decision came in a case brought by four states and 20 environmental organizations against the Bush-era U.S. Forest Service rule that required state governors to petition the federal government for protection of roadless areas on national forests in their states.
Known as the State Petitions Rule, its purpose was to overturn the Roadless Area Conservation Rule of 2001 promulgated by the U.S. Forest Service just eight days before the end of the Clinton administration.
Upholding a lower court ruling, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals today issued a permanent injunction against the State Petitions Rule deciding that "the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act."
"The Forest Serviceís use of a categorical exemption to repeal the nationwide protections of the Roadless Rule and to invite states to pursue varying rules for roadless area management was unreasonable. It was likewise unreasonable for the Forest Service to assert that the environment, listed species, and their critical habitats would be unaffected by this regulatory change," the appellate court ruled.
Fishing in a roadless area on the Olympic National Forest, Washington. June 2009. (Photo by Thomas O'Keefe)
The three judge panel 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 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."
Michael Francis, The Wilderness Societyís national forest program director in Washington, DC, called the decision "a huge victory."
"The courtís decision reinstates the most popular environmental rule of all time," said Francis. "It marks a virtual end to the Bush administrationís attacks on the 2001 roadless rule. It also frees this administration to pursue President Obamaís pledge to 'support and defend' the 2001 rule. We trust the President will welcome the ruling as much as we do."
There are 58.5 million acres of national forest lands identified as "inventoried roadless areas" that are largely undeveloped.
Today's ruling covers these areas minus 50 million acres in Alaska's Tongass National Forest and nine million acres in Idaho's national forests - each now covered by a separate rule.
Both the Alaska and the Idaho rules are being challenged in court by environmental organizations.
"Weíre not out of the woods yet," said Mike Anderson, a senior resource analyst with The Wilderness Society in Seattle. "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."
Another legal challenge to the Roadless Area Conservation Rule is pending before the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.
In August 2008, U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer of Wyoming for the second time issued a permanent injunction against the original rule, saying it violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Wilderness Act.
Environmental groups are appealing Judge Brimmer's decision and are urging President Obama to instruct the Department of Justice to also file an appeal. The Obama administration has until August 18 to make that decision.
"We will continue our appeal in any case," said Kristen Boyles, an attorney for Earthjustice, the nonprofit environmental law firm representing the environmental plaintiffs in the case decided today, and also in the Wyoming court battle.
The Ten Mile/Black Warrior Inventoried Roadless Area on the Boise National Forest in central Idaho. (Photo courtesy USFS)
"Americans love the wild forests and rivers our country has been blessed with," said Boyles. "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."
Despite the legal wrangling over the roadless rule, to date only seven miles of roads have been built and 535 acres of trees logged in roadless areas since 2001.
Environmentalists say that a proposed state-specific roadless rule pending in Colorado now 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."
"Today's ruling is a big win for all Americans because we all value these lands for their clean water and air, quality outdoor recreation and important habitat for wildlife," said Peter Nelson of Defenders of Wildlife. "The Roadless Rule will help to keep these forests strong in the face of global warming, ensuring that our nationís forests continue to provide these benefits for generations to come."
In the challenge to the repeal of the roadless rule, Earthjustice represented: Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, California Wilderness Coalition, Center for Biological Diversity, Conservation NW, Defenders of Wildlife, Environmental Protection Information Center, Forests Forever Foundation, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Greenpeace, Humane Society of the United States, Idaho Conservation League, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, National Audubon Society, Northcoast Environmental Center, Pacific Rivers Council, Oregon Wild, Sierra Club, Sitka Conservation Society, Siskiyou Project, and The Wilderness Society and joined with the states of California, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington.
Copyright Environment News Service, ENS, 2009. All rights reserved.