By Blaine Harden and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 21, 2006
SEATTLE, Sept. 20 -- Ruling against the Bush administration's efforts to open national forests for logging and mining, a federal judge in California on Wednesday set aside a U.S. Forest Service rule that allows governors to decide which land in national forests is suited for development.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth D. Laporte largely reinstated one of the most sweeping, emotionally fraught and legally contentious land-protection measures in decades: the Clinton-era "roadless rule," which put nearly a third of the national forests -- roughly 60 million acres -- off-limits to most development.
Administration officials "don't agree with the decision of the court" in California and "are considering our options" in appealing, said Dave Tenny, the deputy undersecretary of agriculture responsible for Forest Service policy.
The court ruling did not stop Idaho Gov. James E. Risch (R) from presenting a petition on Wednesday to open up the majority of the state's 9.3 million acres of roadless areas to commercial development. Colorado and Utah may soon do likewise.
"Idaho is moving forward," said Brad Hoaglun, a spokesman for Risch. "It sounds like there will be another court case."
Laporte's order chastised the Bush administration for having changed the 2001 roadless rule without explaining why it was doing so, for failing to cite "any new evidence" for altering land protections that had been years in the making and for ignoring the consequences of its new policy on endangered species.
Early in the Bush administration, timber companies and several Western states challenged the roadless rule, winning in lower federal courts but losing on appeal. About 97 percent of roadless areas are in 12 Western states. By issuing a new rule in 2005 that allowed governors to decide which roadless areas warranted continued protection, the administration said it was trying to head off "the prospect of endless lawsuits" that harmed local communities.
But when the Forest Service granted governors the right to make state-by-state decisions, it violated federal environmental law, Laporte wrote in a 53-page ruling released in San Francisco.
"Eliminating a major program triggers the obligation to perform environmental analysis," Laporte wrote, noting that the administration did none.
The decision can be appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which in the past has upheld the roadless rule.
The Forest Service has had "a great deal of success working with the states" under the current rule, Tenny said. "There's a lot of agreement out there about the need to protect roadless areas. If there are differences out there, they're on the margins."
The court challenge to the administration came from four Western states -- California, Oregon, Washington and New Mexico -- along with numerous environmental groups.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), who is hoping to protect his state's 1.6 million acres of roadless areas, welcomed the court decision. "This is a monumental victory for everyone who enjoys our wild forests," he said.
Kristen Boyles, a lawyer for Earthjustice who argued the case in behalf of 20 environmental groups, said the ruling is "a pretty direct assault on what the Forest Service is trying to do under the Bush administration."
The ruling does not affect 9.3 million acres of Alaska's Tongass National Forest, which is covered by a different Forest Service rule.