roadless rule for national forest lands is still alive - but it's
caught in a legal and bureaucratic labyrinth.
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.
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
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
Forest Service Chief Dale
Bosworth is currently requiring his personal approval of any
roadbuilding or timber harvest in roadless areas.