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Judge Overturns Bush Policy on New Forest Roads
Published on Thursday, September 21, 2006 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Judge Overturns Bush Policy on New Forest Roads
by Glen Martin
 
In a rebuke of one of the Bush administration's first environmental policies, a federal judge has overturned a rule that would have allowed roads to be built through nearly 60 million acres of national forest land, including 4.4 million acres in California.

The decision, announced Wednesday, came as several states were preparing to allow road construction on untouched wildlands, opening them to activities like logging, mining and driving off-road vehicles.

U.S. District Judge Elizabeth D. Laporte ruled that the policy ignored both the National Environmental Policy Act and the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Laporte reinstituted a Clinton administration policy implemented in 2001 that prohibited new roads on some pristine wildlands, including large swaths in the Inyo and Stanislaus national forests.

It is unclear whether the administration will appeal the decision or will draft a new plan that will undergo extensive environmental review.

Conservationists said the decision vindicated their contention that the Bush rule was an attempt to log and mine public lands by illegally overturning the Clinton policy.

"It's a great ruling," said Sean Cosgrove, the Sierra Club's national forestry policy specialist. "It shows the strength of the 2001 rule, which was based on real science and extensive public input."

But critics of the roadless rules argue that Laporte's ruling does nothing to break a long-standing logjam over national forest policy.

"We've been going over this thing for the eight years of the Clinton administration and six years with Bush, and what do we have to show for it?" said David Bischel, president of the California Forestry Association. "We're basically back to square one."

The 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule attempted to settle the matter definitively. It banned new roads on 58.5 million acres of national forest land -- 49.2 million in the continental United States and 9.3 million acres of Alaska's Tongass National Forest. A U.S. Forest Service spokesman said Wednesday that it's unclear whether the Tongass forest is affected by Laporte's decision.

The acreage protected under the 2001 policy represents 2 percent of the nation's total land area and 31 percent of national forest land.

The Clinton roadless policy stayed in effect for roughly two years until it was voided by a permanent injunction issued by U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer in Wyoming. Brimmer said the Clinton rule violated the National Environmental Protection Act and the U.S. Wilderness Act because, among other things, it didn't include an adequate range of alternatives.

The Bush administration decided not to challenge Brimmer's ruling and instead issued its own rules that allowed states to petition the federal government to institute their own plans for national forest roadless areas.

David Tenny, a deputy undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said six states -- Idaho, California, New Mexico, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina -- had already filed petitions for roadless area management, and Colorado had a petition pending. The USDA oversees the Forest Service.

The states' plans vary widely, although California's plan, submitted by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, hewed closely to the Clinton rule, Tenny said.

"We intend to keep cooperating with the states on this issue. We've had great success so far -- we just have to figure out how to proceed," Tenny said.

Paul Weiland, a former Justice Department attorney who worked on issues related to the Bush rule, said the administration could appeal or do the extensive environmental studies to support its policy.

"One thing is clear, though -- there's going to be no quick fix. If they challenge the decision, it's going to take time," Weiland said.

Opponents of the Clinton rule expressed frustration over Laporte's decision.

"It's a travesty, a sham," said Edward Waldheim, president of the California Off-Road Vehicle Association.

"What (Bush rule opponents) are doing is taking areas with no real wilderness characteristics and making wilderness areas out of them," Waldheim said. "Trails we now use will be shut off. And it won't stop until they completely lock the American people out of public lands."

But environmentalists like Steve Holmer of the United Forest Defense Campaign say the 2001 rules were written after one of the most extensive public input processes ever undertaken by the federal government, resulting in more than a million comments supporting roadless area protections.

"I think the fight is going to continue because the Bush administration remains determined to open up these last wild areas," Holmer said. "But (Laporte's) ruling indicates we're getting back on track. This is a good day for us."

©2006 San Francisco Chronicle

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