Supreme Court rejects roadless rule case
Written byPHIL TAYLOR, Greenwire
The Supreme Court today said it would not review a Clinton administration rule that prohibits most roads and logging across roughly 45 million acres of national forests, effectively ending more than a decade of legal wrangling.
The court denied petitions from Wyoming and the Colorado Mining Association to overturn the 2001 roadless rule, which initially sought protection for 58.5 million acres, or nearly one-third of Forest Service lands.
Petitioners had asked the Supreme Court to overturn a decision last year by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the Clinton rule and reversed U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer's finding that the nationwide rule had created de facto wilderness and violated the National Environmental Policy Act (Greenwire, Oct. 21, 2011).
Today's decision was not a surprise to many legal experts, who noted that the 10th Circuit's ruling did not conflict with a 2009 decision by the 9th Circuit in San Francisco that also upheld the rule, making it less likely that the Supreme Court would take up an appeal.
"This puts the nail in the coffin of Wyoming's and the Colorado Mining Association's case," said Tim Preso, an attorney at Earthjustice, which has defended the rule in a number of courts for more than a decade. "It's certainly a sweet moment for us to have this huge part of the legal struggle come to a conclusion."
The Clinton rule barred most logging and road building on about 58 million acres of national forests and grasslands but allowed some exceptions, including when fire or other catastrophic events threaten human lives or property.
Idaho and Colorado have since passed their own roadless rules protecting 9 million and 4.2 million acres, respectively, under a George W. Bush administration policy that has since been scrapped.
Road construction in national forests can fracture fish and wildlife habitats and create erosion that muddies local lakes, rivers and streams, proponents of the rule argue. National guidance was needed to prevent the incremental development of the nation's last remaining primitive areas.
"This is a critical legal protection for 50 million acres of public lands that are irreplaceable, that provide clean water to hundreds of communities, provide a last refuge for all kinds of wildlife species and provide people all kinds of experiences, from hiking to hunting to bird-watching to off-road vehicle riding," Preso said.
Wilderness Society President Jamie Williams today thanked Earthjustice for its work and praised the support of California, Oregon, Washington, New Mexico and the Obama administration in defending the rule.
"The roadless rule is now indisputably the law of the land," he said in a statement. "With continued public support, national forest roadless areas will enjoy the enduring legal protection that the roadless rule was intended to provide."
Jane Danowitz of the Pew Environment Group said the court's action "validates one of America's most important and popular land conservation policies."
Wyoming's 42-page petition to the Supreme Court argued that the 2001 rule violated the 1964 Wilderness Act because it effectively bans grazing, oil and gas development, and motorized vehicle use, all of which typically require roads. Under the law, only Congress is allowed to designate wilderness.
The state also argued that the Forest Service overstepped its authority by developing the national roadless rule without following the proper rule-planning process outlined under NEPA and "by predetermining the outcome" of environmental analysis of the rule in favor of its adoption, according to the petition.
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R) said the roadless rule placed restrictions on 3 million acres of national forests in Wyoming, hampering economic opportunities, and that it was beneficial to take the case to the Supreme Court.
"While I am disappointed in the decision, I am ready to move on continuing to work with the Forest Service about these concerns," Mead said today in an emailed statement.
The BlueRibbon Coalition and the California Association of 4 Wheel Drive Clubs, which advocate for motorized recreation on public lands, filed a brief in support of the Wyoming and CMA petitions.
Joining them also was the Portland, Ore.-based American Forest Resource Council, and a separate brief was filed by the Safari Club, an Arizona-based sportsmen's group that argued the rule has restricted access for hunters and barred forest officials from responding to natural and man-made disturbances harmful to wildlife.
Justices Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan were not involved in the consideration or decision on the petitions, the court said.
Preso, of Earthjustice, said a separate case remains in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in which the state of Alaska is challenging the national roadless rule.
Alaska's Tongass National Forest, the nation's largest, was once exempt from the roadless rule under a George W. Bush administration policy that a federal district judge later ruled was unlawful.
Environmental groups are arguing that the state's challenge violates the statute of limitations, Preso said.