Bush fails to defend roadless rule

 

The roadless rule for national forest lands is still alive - but it's caught in a legal and bureaucratic labyrinth.

On July 9, the Bush administration missed the deadline to appeal a decision by U.S. District Court Judge Edward Lodge. The Idaho judge had blocked the roadless rule with a preliminary injunction in May, citing "grossly inadequate" public comment (HCN, 5/21/01: Bush administration blinks on roadless rule). The rule, which would protect 58.5 million acres of federal forests from roadbuilding, was established by the Clinton administration after 600 public meetings and 1.6 million public comments.

The environmental law firm Earthjustice, which intervened in the case on behalf of several environmental groups, will pursue an appeal of Lodge's decision. The government's inaction doesn't affect the status of the case, but "it does make a difference in what lawyers call 'atmospherics,' " says Earthjustice attorney Doug Honnold. "It looks odd for us to be defending a federal agency that hasn't bothered to defend itself."

The rule is also the subject of seven other lawsuits, now in various stages at district courts around the country.

In the meantime, the Forest Service has opened a 60-day comment period on the rule. Agency spokeswoman Diane Banegas says that "all we're doing is gathering additional comment," but the July 10 Federal Register notice of the comment period indicates a shift away from national-level roadless protection. It states that it is "difficult, and perhaps infeasible to collect in a short time frame" the local information needed for a national roadless rule.

Whether the agency can use the new comments to change the existing roadless rule is unclear. In general, Honnold says, an administration cannot alter a rule "on the basis of politics alone." He adds, "The onus is on the Bush administration to explain how the facts have changed or the law has changed." Any changes to the rule or its supporting environmental impact statement are likely to bring on a lawsuit from environmentalists.

Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth is currently requiring his personal approval of any roadbuilding or timber harvest in roadless areas.