WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Bush administration acted illegally when it opened millions of acres (hectares) of U.S. national forests to road-building and logging, a federal appeals court ruled on Wednesday.
The U.S. Appeals Court for the Ninth Circuit effectively reinstated a 2001 rule that bars development in recognized “roadless” areas of national forests, except in Idaho and the Tongass National Forest in Alaska.
“The court today confirmed protections for these wild forests and rivers that Americans love and cherish,” said Kristen Boyles, a lawyer with Earthjustice, who litigated the case on behalf of 20 environmental groups.
“These are areas where we get our clean water, where we hike and hunt, take our families camping,” Boyles said by telephone from Seattle. “We can all cheer that the court today protected national roadless areas.”
The original 2001 rule was struck down in 2005 by the Bush administration, which offered an alternative that allowed states to petition to build roads and do logging on national forest land. Legal challenges to this change kept all but a tiny handful of projects from being built.
Wednesday’s decision was hailed by environmental groups as protection for about 50 million acres (20 million hectares) of forest and grasslands.
Aside from benefiting those who use these lands for recreation, the ruling is expected to benefit cities and towns that get drinking water from roadless areas, because they will spend less on water treatment, and the forests could also shelter more wildlife in future decades.
“Today’s ... ruling affirms what many hunters and anglers have been saying all along, namely, that the remaining federal lands that are roadless must be conserved for the high-quality hunting and fishing they provide American citizens,” Joel Webster of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership said in a statement.
The Sierra Club noted that President Barack Obama pledged during last year’s presidential campaign to “support and defend” the 2001 roadless rule.
“Now the Obama administration has an opportunity to take the steps necessary to provide protections for all of our nation’s remaining roadless areas, including the Tongass National Forest,” Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope said in a statement.
Environmental groups called on the Obama administration to instruct the Justice Department to appeal a suit now before the U.S. Appeals Court for the 10th Circuit, in Denver, that seeks to nullify the 2001 roadless rule.
Editing by Cynthia Osterman