Supreme Court's roadless forest ruling closes book on era that ended a decade ago

Idaho StatesmanOctober 2, 2012 

The U.S. Supreme Court closed the book Monday on an era in American conservation history that had all but ended more than a decade ago.

The court rejected an appeal challenging the 2001 Clinton roadless rule that stopped logging and road building on 58 million acres of national forests. There are still a couple of legal cases hanging but the rule, which said keep roadless forests essentially as they are, has passed through the legal gantlet.

Idaho’s separate roadless rule for managing the state’s 9.3 million acres of roadless lands was upheld by U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill, and is up for appeal before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. A hearing is scheduled in Portland Nov. 9.

And a separate case over 15 million acres of roadless forests in Alaska is still unresolved. But even if environmentalists lose both cases the chances of major logging and road building are doubtful.

When Clinton proposed the rule in 2000 the timber industry had already been all but prevented from logging roadless national forests by lawsuits over water quality and endangered species. By the end of the 20th Century the Forest Service had become the nation’s top road-building agency, with 380,000 miles of roads, nine times the 40,000 miles of the U.S. Interstate highway system. The agency had an $8 billion road maintenance backlog that few in Congress wanted to grow.

So even if the rule had not been pushed by Clinton with wide public support, the roadless forests would have been largely left as they are anyway. But the rule made the political reality clear and helped push those who might have invested in roadless logging and development to put their money elsewhere.

Still, states like Idaho, Alaska and Wyoming held out and fought in court. After earlier court defeats, Idaho and the Bush Administration took another route.

They pushed their own separate roadless rule that only got legs when then Gov. Jim Risch committed to making his rule as good or better than the 2001 rule. One can argue whether he met the test but his effort brought conservation groups like the Idaho Conservation League and Trout Unlimited on board.

Eventually the groups approved a plan to protect all but 405,000 acres of the 9.3 million roadless forests in Idaho with the support of timber companies, loggers, local officials and miners.

The excluded acres are in eastern Idaho where JR Simplot hopes to eventually expand its phosphate mines. That kept other groups like the Wilderness Society and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition from joining Risch and that’s why it remains on appeal.

Meanwhile Idaho’s Roadless Commission meets to discuss management within the state’s roadless areas with wide support for protection from people on all sides. The Wilderness Society and other conservation groups are working with loggers and local government to get the Forest Service to do more logging along with restoration projects.

“It’s really a different era than when the roadless rule was approved,” said Mike Anderson, the Wilderness Society’s senior resource analyst.

So if the 9th Circuit overrules Winmill over the Idaho roadless case, the most it could do is to reinstate the 2001 rule. The only place that might change much on the ground is for those 450,000 acres.

And since traditional forest management regulations would remain in place there might not be much change at all.

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