The West’s national forests remain in legal limbo. For four years, the U.S. Forest Service has been trying to overhaul the rules that govern the creation of forest plans, the “blueprints” that describe how each forest will be managed and protected. And for the past two years, the process has been locked in federal court.

The Justice Department recently dropped its appeal of a March 2007 ruling that overturned the Forest Service’s controversial 2005 forest planning rules. Federal agencies and environmental groups are now trying to figure out what the administration’s decision means for over 193 million acres of national forest and grasslands.

A month after the Forest Service rolled out the 2005 rules in September 2004, environmental groups filed suit, claiming that the agency had removed environmental protections without considering the effects on endangered species or providing for public comment.

In March 2007, U.S. District Court Judge Phyllis Hamilton ruled that the agency must comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and analyze the environmental impacts of the 2005 rules. The Justice Department quickly appealed, but has now decided that it’s less costly and time-consuming to drop its appeal.

The Forest Service is not yet sure how this will affect its efforts to revise the planning rules, says Janelle Smith, spokeswoman for the Rocky Mountain Region. The agency has already released a draft of its 2007 rules, which, according to Bob Dreher, vice president for conservation law with Defenders of Wildlife, are virtually identical to their predecessors and will most likely face more lawsuits. Dreher calls the dropped appeal a small but important concession with regard to implementing forest policy, but, he says, “The battle is by no means over.”

Those 2007 rules do attempt to comply with Judge Hamilton’s ruling, says Martin Nie, associate professor of natural resource policy at the University of Montana, although some sections still may violate the National Environmental Policy Act. For now, forest planning continues in disarray. “No one is happy,” Nie says. “And meanwhile, we still don’t have a plan.”