The campaign to protect unroaded forests gets torn apart by a Wyoming judge in 'half-assed retirement'

  • Cindy Wehling photo illustration; Istock photos
  • The watershed of Oregon's Rogue River includes roadless areas protected by Clinton's rule.

    Dang Ngo/Zuma Press
  • Wyoming federal judge Clarence Brimmer Jr. found that Clinton's rule was illegally rigged -- infuriating environmentalists.

    Todd Newcomer
  • The campaign persuaded more than a million people to send boilerplate comments to the Clinton administration on postcards like the one at left and mass e-mails and faxes. More than 80,000 people signed petitions circulated by Aveda, a company that makes eco-friendly beauty products and works with salons nationwide. This year, the campaign is urging the Obama administration to back Clinton's rule, by sending more mass e-mails and running ads during last spring's NCAA basketball tournament calling for a "Time Out!" on activities in roadless areas.

  • Ken Rait, a skilled politico based in Oregon, ran Pew Charitable Trust's Heritage Forests Campaign from 1997 until the Clinton roadless rule was finalized in 2001. Now he's campaigns director for another Pew-funded group, the Campaign for America's Wilderness.

  • George T. Frampton Jr. ran The Wilderness Society from 1986 to 1993, then pushed for the roadless rule within the Clinton White House as head of the Council on Environmental Quality. He's now a corporate lawyer working on clean energy issues.

  • Mike Dombeck was the U.S. Forest Service Chief from 1997 to 2001, overseeing the roadless rule process. He's now a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He's also been a National Wildlife Federation board member.


Also see sidebars:

The Wicked Witch of the West

The roadless rule ground game


The environmentalists' boogeyman walks with tiny, uncertain steps. He's 87 years old, suffers from an arthritic knee and worries about stumbling and falling down. He's also slowly shrinking -- he lost an inch and 24 pounds over the last three years, so now he's only 5 feet 6 and 120 pounds. But today he's looking flashy, spicing up his beige suit with a nicely coordinated daffodil-yellow shirt and an amber-hued bow tie.

The Honorable Clarence Addison Brimmer Jr., federal judge for the district of Wyoming, speaks softly and carefully even when kidding around. Don't call him Clarence, he says. "Guys who are named Clarence always have a nickname. It's just one of those things -- a cross I have to bear. ... 'Bud' -- that's been my nickname for a hundred years, that's what my mother called me."

He's supposedly on "senior status" in his judicial duties –– "a fancy name for half-assed retirement," he says. But on this sunny September day, he's in his courthouse office, still handling a full case load.

And that's too bad for the environmental movement. Brimmer gained notoriety through court decisions that spurned many green ambitions over the years, including the spread of wolves, grazing restrictions and Yellowstone snowmobile regulations. Even when other judges overrule his decisions, he undercuts the environmentalists' campaigns.

Frail though he appears, now Brimmer is closing in on a major kill. He's determined to wipe out what environmentalists call "the most significant land conservation initiative in nearly a century": the Roadless Area Conservation Rule.

Imposed by the Clinton administration in 2001, the rule protected 58.5 million acres of national forest, mostly in the West -- the wildest portions that were not already designated wilderness. Clinton's rule has since been shoved around by the Bush and Obama administrations, various courts and state governments. People argue whether it still protects all the acres it originally did, or only some or none. Regardless, it's earned superlatives -- especially for how the enviros pulled it off.

It was simply "the most extensive national environmental Campaign yet waged in the United States, combining grass-roots organizing in nearly every state; massive infusions of philanthropic support; support from hunters and anglers; religious leaders, scientists, and the outdoor recreation industry; relentless lobbying of Congress and the executive branch; and complex and extremely long-lived litigation," writes Earthjustice's Tom Turner in his recent book, Roadless Rules: The Struggle for the Last Wild Forests.

Brimmer has issued a series of rulings against the roadless rule, most recently last June, when he reaffirmed his nationwide injunction against it. Enviros and the Obama administration appealed that decision, and the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver will soon begin weighing arguments on the case. The U.S. Congress and the states are also reacting to Brimmer's decision.

In a typical dismissal of Brimmer, an Ivy League enviro lawyer calls him "a crazy rightwing judge for whom reality is irrelevant."

But a closer look reveals things that the environmentalists might rather keep under wraps. The details behind the making of the rule, along with the PR campaign, demonstrate how all interest groups -- from liberal enviros to libertarian Tea Partiers -- carry out their goals using a mix of idealism, cynicism and brute-force politics.

Brimmer believes the roadless rule was created in a sneaky, illegal way. And he says, "I feel we have to play the cards face up."

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