In Landmark Decision, Court Upholds National Forest Roadless Rule

No new roads for the Tongass. Photo: Mark Brennan

In one of the most important decisions for public lands in decades, a federal court ruled Friday that the Clinton administration 2001 national forest roadless rule is legal and should be implemented immediately. The state of Wyoming and others charged that the rule, which bans new roads, timber harvesting, and upgrading of existing roads in almost one-third of national forest lands, violated federal environmental regulations and created de facto wilderness, but the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals sweepingly rejected that in a unanimous decision.

“Wyoming failed to demonstrate that the Forest Service’s promulgation of the Roadless Rule violated the Wilderness Act, NEPA, MUSYA, or NFMA,” the three-judge panel in Denver wrote. “Thus, the district court abused its discretion in permanently enjoining the Roadless Rule on a nationwide basis because the court’s action was based on the erroneous legal conclusion that Wyoming had succeeded on the merits of its claims.”

The rule covers 58.5 million acres out of the 191 million acres of national forest. Under former Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck, the agency determined that a national roadless rule would best protect the wildlife habitat, water quality, and recreational values of un-roaded areas. The policy was adopted after a massive amount of public input. According to some sources, the agency received more than 2 million comments, with 95 percent in favor of the rule.

The Bush administration overturned the roadless rule and issued a new state-by-state process, enabling states to work with the Forest Service to develop specific rules for national forests within individual states. Critics charged that the rule created a backdoor wilderness, but the appeals court rejected that argument, noting that the areas in question have existing roads, mining, grazing, and motorized vehicles like snowmobiles and ATVs — which are verboten in wilderness.

“The Forest Service did not usurp Congressional authority because the roadless rule did not establish de facto wilderness,” wrote Judge Jerome A. Holmes, a Bush appointee.

“Today’s decision is among the most significant conservation victories in several decades. It reinforces the roadless rule as the cornerstone of protection for our national forests and preserves these landscapes for generations to come,” said Jane Danowitz, director of the Pew Environment Group’s public lands program.

In a statement, the Forest Service said, “The Obama administration has been and remains a strong supporter of the protection of roadless areas. These areas are vital for protecting watersheds, [and] providing recreation and hunting and fishing opportunities. We applaud this decision upholding the 2001 rule and are proud to have vigorously supported the rule in this case.”

The Wyoming suit was one of a number of challenges to the rule. The Bush administration exempted Tongass National Forest from the rule, which was later overturned. Alaska is appealing that ruling. And environmentalists are challenging Idaho’s adoption of a looser version of the rule. Although the 10th Circuit ruling doesn’t specifically address those cases, it ordered the rule to be implemented nationally.

Wyoming still could appeal to the Supreme Court or to the full panel of the 10th Circuit, but, said Jim Angell, an Earthjustice attorney who represented environmental groups in this case, “This was an extremely thorough, 120-page opinion, unanimous and authored by a George W. Bush appointee. I expect this rule to hold.”

Additional reporting by Summit County Citizens Voice. Environmental coverage made possible in part by support from Patagonia. For information on Patagonia and its environmental efforts, visit

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