Summary: A federal appeals court ruling limits new road building in wild areas, but the debate won’t be resolved until Congress acts.
While the debate over the fate of millions of “roadless” acres of National Forests is unresolved, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit recently solidified interim protections for those lands in the Rocky Mountains, giving Congress yet another opportunity to protect these pristine areas for posterity.
These blocks of public lands are a luminescent landscape of peaks, forests, lakes, and streams where few roads, logging, or commercial activities exist. They are ripe for inclusion in our nation’s Wilderness preservation system. The appeals court’s decision settled a split between the 9th and 10th Circuits that had Western states following conflicting mandates, but it doesn’t settle the debate about preservation and human uses of public lands. The unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel of the appeals court may be taken to the full 10th Circuit Court, but chances are slim the case would be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.
These lands have long been in limbo, litigated and politicized but never designated or rejected by Congress as Wilderness under the Wilderness Act of 1964. The stakes in the outcome of this debate are huge – these lands span more than 58 million acres from Arkansas to Alaska. It is a century-long struggle between those who want to use public lands for commodity extraction and those who want to preserve them. The competing visions of Gifford Pinchot and Aldo Leopold still stalk the debate. Western politicians still use the issue as a whipping boy, stirring anti-environmentalist fervor over job losses “caused” by preservation, although, in reality, protecting federal lands often benefits local economies.
Legal skirmishing over roadless lands began in the 1970s when the Forest Service, bent on increasing logging on federal lands and later encouraged by the pro-logging Reagan administration, sought to release these lands from future wilderness protection. Those efforts were thwarted by the agency’s failure to comply with environmental laws. The Clinton administration, seeking to end the litigation and bring finality to the debate, enacted a rule banning most new roads and commercial logging in the final days of his administration. The Roadless Area Conservation Rule protected all remaining roadless areas from development that threatens the wilderness qualities of those National Forest lands. But the Bush administration created a process for state governments—many sympathetic to loggers, miners and off-road vehicle users—to petition the federal government to decide the fate of these lands. Bush’s rule also lifted Clinton’s ban on timber harvest and road building, leaving conservationists to either slog through the petition process or litigate to stop new projects.
In 2001, Republican-leaning Western states, off-road vehicle interest groups, and some Native American tribes filed multiple lawsuits challenging the roadless rule. In Koontenai Tribe of Idaho v. Veneman, the Ninth Circuit upheld the roadless rule. That kicked off a decade of lawsuits and schizophrenic federal court rulings that had some Western states following the Clinton roadless rule after Bush’s State Petitions Rule was declared illegal in the Ninth Circuit, other Western states adhering to Bush’s State Petitions rule, and the Forest Service toiling in limbo.
Now that the 10th Circuit’s Wyoming v. USDA decision avoids a circuit split by upholding the Clinton Rule, the Forest Service has uniform authority to protect roadless lands. The agency has mostly ended its decades-long logging binge and seeks to manage public lands for ecosystem and recreation values. But the fate of these lands remains in legal limbo, underscoring the larger societal debate over preservation versus utilization. President Obama, charting a centrist course, has not resolved the debate. His administration has encouraged states to use the now-defunct Bush State Petitions Rule but also issued an administrative directive akin to the Clinton roadless rule. Some politicians are trying to solve the roadless issue in their home states, but they do so at great political risk. Wyoming already petitioned the 10th Circuit for a rehearing in front of all the the Circuit’s judges, asking the court to revisit the decision. The 10th Circuit’s decision is an important milestone in the roadless rule debate, but until Congress acts, the fate of these public lands remains unresolved.