Federal judge blocks Clinton era protection of pristine forests

An Idaho federal judge has halted one of President Clinton’s boldest environmental protections which prevents development of ‘roadless’ areas of forest, totalling a third of the US total.

Judge Edward J. Lodge of the Federal District Court in Boise, Idaho halted the Clinton protection, which would have seen some 59 million acres off-limits to road building and most logging (see related story), and was due to come into force on 12 May. Judge Lodge justified the move saying that the rule would cause “irreparable long-term harm” to local communities and called the Bush Administration’s plan to implement a modified rule “a Band-Aid approach”.

Lodge ruled in favour of the challenge to the rule brought by the State of Idaho and a major logging company, Boise Cascade, who argued that a legal requirement to take concerns surrounding possible economic harm to the state and to the timber and mining industries was not met. This was despite three years of public debate with 600 public hearings around the nation and 1.6 million public comments on the plan. However, Lodge insisted that he had the current administration’s own concerns in mind issuing the preliminary injunction, saying the rule would “cause a chilling effect that will preclude local Forest Service officials from planning future management activities”.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which developed the plan with the Forest Service, said that even with the ruling, “USDA will move forward with an open and fair process that addresses the concerns raised by this rule. It is important that we address these issues to ensure the protection of our forests while addressing reasonable issues raised by the rule,” it said, and put forward five guiding principles to address the issue:

  • informed decision-making, with “more reliable information and accurate mapping, including drawing on local expertise and experience through the local forest planning process”;
  • working together with states, tribes, local communities and the public through a process that is “fair, open, and responsive to local input and information”;
  • protecting roadless forests from severe wildfire, insect and disease activity;
  • protecting adjacent communities, homes, and property; and
  • protecting access to property within roadless areas.

Idaho’s Republican governor, Dirk Kempthorne, who originally issued the court challenge and was supported by the administrations of Colorado, Montana and Wyoming, was pleased with the ruling. “Judge Lodge has affirmed what the State of Idaho has contended all along in its lawsuits challenging the Clinton Administration’s roadless policy. He has once again found that there were fatal flaws in the rulemaking process, and that the roadless policy posed serious risks to both federal forestlands and neighbouring state lands by restricting active management.” Kempthorne also praised the five principals put forward by the new USDA administration.

Environmental groups granted status as intervenors in the case said they would challenge the decision in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and that there was no basis for the judge’s finding that the rule would cause harm. “During Attorney General John Ashcroft’s confirmation hearings, he promised, under oath, to defend these protections in court,” commented Carl Pope, Executive Directorof the NGO, the Sierra Club. “We’re on watch to ensure President Bush’s Justice Department fulfils its obligations to the American people. The real test is whether the Bush Administration defends these protections in the courts and enforces them in the forests. Americans are making their summer vacation plans, but today’s ruling is a blow to everyone who loves hunting, hiking and fishing in our unspoiled National Forests.”

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