The mood was unusually agreeable at a recent federal court hearing on the Clinton administration's roadless area conservation rule for national forest lands. In Boise, Idaho, on March 30, Judge Edward Lodge heard arguments against the rule from the State of Idaho, timber company Boise Cascade, and other plaintiffs. Then he turned to the government attorneys, who are usually expected to defend federal policy.

They spoke for less than five minutes.

"We essentially watched the government move over and sit with the plaintiffs," says John McCarthy of the Idaho Conservation League. The ICL and eight other environmental groups, which intervened in the case, offered the only substantial defense at the hearing.

The roadless rule, which would protect about 58.5 million acres of national forest lands from logging and road-building, was to take effect March 13, but the Bush administration recently delayed the start date until May 12 (HCN, 4/9/01: Republicans launch counteroffensive).

Six days after the Boise hearing, Judge Lodge decided not to decide. The plaintiffs wanted a preliminary injunction, which would have blocked the roadless rule until the courts made a final decision. Lodge postponed his ruling on the injunction until after May 4, when the Bush administration is expected to complete its review of the policy.

Most observers say the administration cannot single-handedly reverse the rule, since it was vetted in several years of public hearings and published in the Federal Register. But the administration could revise the policy and open a new, weaker version to public comment.

The plaintiffs are pleased with their day in court, especially because Judge Lodge's written opinion described the public comment period for the rule as "grossly inadequate." "It appears from the pointed wording that he believes the state's concerns are valid," says H.D. Palmer, spokesman for Idaho Republican Gov. Dirk Kempthorne.

Environmental groups cannot appeal until the judge makes a final decision. In the meantime, they hope a letter-writing campaign by their supporters will convince President Bush and new Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman to preserve the rule as is.

But Doug Honnold of Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, the lead counsel for the environmental groups, says, "We're hard-pressed to imagine anything but a rush to rescind the rule."