August 20, 2008

There Ought to Be a Roadless Law


New York Times

Among President Bill Clinton’s signature environmental achievements was a regulation that prohibited new roads — and by extension, new commercial activity — in nearly 60 million largely undeveloped acres of the national forests. For seven years, the Bush administration, egged on by its friends in the timber and oil-and-gas industries, has worked tirelessly to kill the roadless rule. Conservationists have worked just as hard to preserve it.

Rules devised by the executive branch are often challenged on grounds that they violate an underlying federal statute or have been rushed through without proper vetting. Environmental regulations are especially contentious. The roadless rule, in particular, has been caught in an endless game of Ping-Pong, with some courts upholding it, others overturning it.

The good news is that little has changed on the ground: In seven years, only seven miles of new roads have been built in protected areas in the lower 48 states. Legally, though, things are a complete mess. That means that there is no guaranteed protection for the roadless forests.

The Clinton rule has been thrown out three times by district courts in response to lawsuits from states and industries. The most recent injunction was handed down last week by Clarence A. Brimmer, a conservative Federal District Court judge in Wyoming. He issued one of the earlier injunctions and has supported the administration on whether to limit snowmobiles in Yellowstone, which is another long-running environmental dispute.

The roadless rule has been reinstated twice — once at the appellate level by the Ninth Circuit, and later by a federal magistrate judge in San Francisco, Elizabeth LaPorte. Judge LaPorte also slapped down a sneaky effort by the Bush administration to take advantage of all the confusion by replacing the Clinton rule with a much weaker alternative of its own.

Environmental groups will surely appeal Judge Brimmer’s latest ruling, which, of course, they should. But that still leaves too much room for mischief. Congress will have to intervene. Last year, more than 140 House members and 19 senators introduced the National Forest Roadless Area Conservation Act. It is past time to provide permanent protection for the forests by turning the Clinton rule into firm law.