WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court Wednesday blocked road construction in at least 40 million acres of pristine national forests.
The decision by a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstates most of a 2001 rule put in place by President Bill Clinton just before he left office that prohibited commercial logging, mining and other development on about 58 million acres of national forest in 38 states and Puerto Rico. A subsequent Bush administration rule had cleared the way for more commercial activity there.
The latest ruling, issued in San Francisco, sides with several Western states and environmental groups that sued the Forest Service after it reversed the so-called "Roadless Rule" in 2005.
But it is not the final word on roadless forests.
A separate case is pending in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, where environmental groups are appealing a Wyoming district court decision repealing the Clinton roadless rule.
"It's up and down like a yo-yo," said Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group. "It seems to be bouncing from one court to the other."
The Obama administration cited legal uncertainty this spring in ordering a one-year moratorium on most road-building in national forests.
A May 28 directive by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack gives him sole decision-making authority over all proposed forest management or road construction projects in designated roadless areas in all states except Idaho. Idaho was one of two states that developed its own roadless rule under the 2005 Bush policy, which gave states more control over whether and how to block road-building in remote forests.
Lawyers involved in the case said the 9th Circuit ruling reinstated the Clinton era rule everywhere except Idaho and the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. Idaho created its own plan for roadless forests and the Tongass was exempted from roadless protection in a separate 2003 decision.
Vilsack said in May that his directive should ensure that oversight of activities in the affected areas can continue while long-term roadless policy is developed and court cases proceed.
Justin DeJong, a spokesman for Vilsack, said Wednesday that "the Obama administration supports conservation of roadless areas in our national forests, and this decision today reaffirms the protection of these resources."
The Obama administration has not said whether it will defend the Clinton rule in the Wyoming court battle, but environmentalists say the administration should step in to protect roadless areas.
"We're not out of the woods yet," said Mike Anderson, a senior resource analyst with The Wilderness Society in Seattle.
The 9th Circuit 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," he said.
Even without that step, environmental advocates hailed the ruling, calling it the end of the Bush-era rule on roadless forests.
"This is a huge step. It puts the roadless rule back in place," said Kristen Boyles, a lawyer for the environmental group Earthjustice, which represented a coalition of environmental groups in the case.
Boyles, who has fought for nearly eight years to uphold the 2001 roadless rule, said the 9th Circuit ruling "is what we need to be able to have the protection on the ground for the last wild places and for hikers and campers."
In its 38-page decision, the appeals court said the 2005 Bush rule "had the effect of permanently repealing uniform, nationwide, substantive protections that were afforded to inventoried roadless areas" in national forests, replacing them with a system the Forest Service "had rejected as inadequate a few years earlier."
The court said the 2001 rule offered greater protection to remote forests than the 2005 rule, adding that the 2001 rule has "immeasurable benefits from a conservationist standpoint."
Meanwhile, developments continue on the ground.
Last month, Vilsack approved a timber sale in a roadless area of Alaska's Tongass National Forest. The sale allows Pacific Log and Lumber to clear-cut about 380 acres in the Tongass, the largest federal forest. About nine miles of roads will be constructed to allow the logging.
Timber sales in other roadless areas are pending, including a forest-thinning project in Oregon that would allow logging of about 900 acres in the Umpqua National Forest near Diamond Lake. About 25 miles of roads would be built.
"What the Forest Service is proposing on the doorstep of Crater Lake National Park is harmful, unnecessary and illegal," said Doug Heiken of the environmental group Oregon Wild.
Partin, of the timber industry group, countered that the project would reduce the risk of wildfire and insect infestation.
"If we don't treat them before they die (of insect infestation), we will have massive wildfires," Partin said.
The case is state of California et al. v. USDA, 07-15613.