U.S. Court Bans Oil and Gas Roads on Roadless National Forests

SAN FRANCISCO, California, November 30, 2006 (ENS) - A federal district judge ruled yesterday that the Roadless Area Conservation Rule should be applied to prohibit road construction on hundreds of oil and gas leases issued on national forest roadless areas since the rule was first enacted in 2001.

Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Laporte of the U.S. District Court, Northern District of California issued the order, which bans road construction on 327 oil and gas leases issued by the Bush administration since January 2001, most in Colorado, Utah and North Dakota.

In September, the same judge overturned the Bush administration's repeal of the Clinton-era Roadless Rule, deciding that federal laws had been violated.

Conservation groups, represented by a team of Earthjustice attorneys, brought the legal challenge to the Bush administration policies, joining parallel efforts by four states which brought a separate but similar challenge.

"This ruling is a victory for hunters, anglers, hikers, backpackers and everyone who wants to see their National Forests wild and pristine, instead of industrialized for oil and gas development," said Earthjustice lawyer Tim Preso.

"Many of these leases had been heavily opposed by local citizens, but the Bush administration turned a deaf ear to their concerns," he said.

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Petroleum drilling in Ouachita National Forest in southeastern Oklahoma. (Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service)
Just before he left office, in January 2001, then President Bill Clinton adopted a nationwide Roadless Rule that banned nearly all road-building and logging in national forest roadless areas.

Roadless areas are landscapes of 5,000 or more continuous undeveloped acres. They provide a vital source of fresh water in the arid West, and habitat for more than 2,000 imperiled species.

In May 2005, the U.S. Forest Service repealed the Roadless Rule.

It was replaced by the State Petitions Rule that established a new process. State governors could petition the Forest Service for less or more roadless area protection within their state, but petitions had to be filed within 18 months.

The Bush rule allowed roadless areas to be managed under forest-specific land management plans that generally permitted some development.

The attorneys general of California and New Mexico, the governors of Washington and Oregon, and 20 environmental groups filed suit in the Northern District of California, challenging the new Bush regulation as violating the National Environmental Policy Act and the federal Endangered Species Act.

California Attorney General Bill Lockyer said at the time, “I am filing this lawsuit because the Bush administration is putting at risk some of the last, most pristine portions of America’s national forests.”

"A huge wave of oil and gas drilling is sweeping over Colorado's West Slope, and now it's threatening some of the wildest, most scenic areas of our forests," said Jeff Mead in July. Mead operates Mamm Peak Outfitters, guiding hunting trips in the Mamm Peak Roadless Areas, which is covered with over 3,000 acres of leases. Mead pointed out that petroleum leases and development are surrounding and creeping onto Battlement Mesa and Grand Mesa near Collbran.

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Los Padres National Forest has the only commercial quantities of oil and gas in California's national forests. Los Padres now hosts 240 active oil wells covering 4,800 acres. There are 26 pending oil and gas lease applications covering an additional 23,000 acres. (Photo courtesy Los Padres ForestWatch)
In repealing the Roadless Rule, the Forest Service did not prepare an impact statement, did not consider alternatives, and did not consult with the expert fish and wildlife agencies, the court determined in itsSeptember 20 ruling.

The Forest Service had claimed that its new regulation establishing a state petition process was simply procedural, and so required no process under the Endangered Species Act, ESA, or the National Environmental Policy Act.

The agency asserted it could postpone an environmental analysis and ESA consultation until it received petitions from the states, because until then, any impact was speculative.

The court rejected both arguments. Magistrate Judge Laporte wrote, "The impact of the State Petitions Rule is not speculative; it replaced the Roadless Rule, thereby reducing protections of [roadless areas] across the country by reverting to the land management plans for each forest."