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Roadless rule withstands a “supreme” test

After a decade of legal challenges, the “roadless rule” landed on the U.S. Supreme Court’s doorstep, and on Monday, the court opted to leave it in place rather than hear the latest appeal. The rule doesn’t allow new road-building on millions of acres of national forest land in three dozen states, including Washington.

The state of Wyoming and the Colorado Mining Association were the latest to cite missed economic opportunities for mining, logging and energy development. The decision not to hear their appeal is a victory in the conservation community, says Mike Anderson, senior resource analyst with The Wilderness Society.

“It’s been up and down in the courts, in different circuits, but this really does put a great deal of certainty into the legality of the roadless rule’s protections.”

Of the nine million acres of Forest Service-managed land in Washington, two million are roadless areas. The roadless rule was the last major policy put into place by President Clinton before he left office in 2001.

Anderson points out that some mining and motorized vehicle use is allowed in roadless areas.

Not all the states affected by the rule have been in favor of it. But Kristin Boyles, an attorney with Earthjustice, says Washington has been vocal in its support of the rule, along with Oregon, California and New Mexico.

“I think there’s been a focus on the states that challenged, but an equal number of states said they like this rule and that’s what they wanted to have in place to protect the federal lands in their borders.”

The Ninth and Tenth Circuit Courts had already struck down challenges to the roadless rule. There’s one more court case still pending, by the state of Alaska.

Boyles says the rule has wide-ranging benefits for the environment.

“This rule protects habitat for wildlife; it protects streams and rivers that provide clean water for many, many communities. It is places where families camp and hike, and hunt and fish. This means they won’t be developed, or at least, roads won’t be put in them.”

She says conservation and recreation aren’t the only reasons the Forest Service wants to curtail road-building. The agency has an enormous road-maintenance backlog on the 193 million acres of land it manages nationwide.