WASHINGTON - The roadless rule may be at a dead end.
The Clinton-era policy, which blocks development on nearly a third of national forests, was struck down this month by a federal judge, who said officials had improperly designated wilderness areas.
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The decision in a Wyoming case - which is subject to appeal - prevents the rule from being applied in any of the 38 states that have designated roadless areas. The rule had blocked road-building and other development in 58.5 million acres of remote forests, mostly in the West.
The July 14 ruling by U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer was the most serious among several setbacks suffered by the roadless rule in recent days.
A day after the decision, the Bush administration formally proposed exempting the nation's two largest federal forests from the roadless policy. The plan would settle a lawsuit brought by Alaska and allow logging and other development in nearly a half-million acres of the vast Tongass and Chugach forests.
In the lawsuit, the state argued application of the roadless rule to Alaska national forests violates the "no more" clause of the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which divided conservation and development lands and stipulated no more land would be set aside for conservation.
Two days after the July 14 decision, the Republican-controlled House defeated an amendment that would have blocked the Alaska settlement and prevented the Bush administration from allowing governors to request exemptions to the roadless rule.
The timber industry and Republican lawmakers hailed the developments, saying that common-sense land management appeared to be prevailing over what they called the environmental extremism of the Clinton administration.
"The roadless rule would arbitrarily fence off land and throw away the keys," said Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., chairman of the House Resources Committee, which oversees land use issues.
Pombo called the roadless rule a "don't touch" management plan that also would block recreation activities and prohibit needed forest maintenance to prevent catastrophic wildfires.
Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski has said that lifting the roadless rule could help provide more economic stability to Southeast Alaska's timber industry. The U.S. Forest Service had proposed increasing timber sales from three-to-five years to 10 years if the roadless rule were lifted, also citing increased economic security.
But environmentalists describe the moves as a threat that could permanently alter the landscape of the nation's forests.
"Ultimately the fate of the roadless rule is not resting in the hands of the federal courts; rather it is in the hands of the Bush administration," said Robert Vandermark, co-director of the Heritage Forest Campaign, an environmental advocacy group.
He and other critics called the Tongass proposal as proof that the administration is not living up to its public statements to maintain roadless protections for national forests.
"The timber industry is getting what they paid for," said Tiernan Sittenfeld of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. "Thanks to the Bush administration the places where Americans hike, hunt, and fish are on track to be destroyed."
Mark Rey, the Agriculture undersecretary who oversees the Forest Service, said critics were, as usual, overreacting.
The Tongass settlement would maintain existing protections on 95 percent of the 17 million-acre forest, Rey said, with only about 300,000 acres opened to development.
"I think the ... National Wildlife Federation ought to make me a conservationist of the year," said Rey, a former timber industry lobbyist who frequently has battled with environmental groups.
Not only has the administration retained the roadless rule, Rey said, it has tried to ensure that it will not be subject to the repeated court challenges that have marked the Clinton policy.
Brimmer's ruling was the second injunction issued by a federal judge against the roadless rule. The first, in 2001, was overturned in December by the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The current case is before the more conservative Denver-based 10th Circuit.
"We didn't scrap it. We could easily have done that if we wanted to," Rey said, noting that the rule was never enacted by Congress and was imposed just days before President Clinton left office.
Rey said the plan to allow governors to exclude some national forests in their states from the roadless rule was part of an effort to engage states as partners in managing forests. As a practical matter, most states are likely to leave the rule intact, he said. Governors in just three states - Montana, Wyoming and Idaho - have said they intend to seek a waiver.
But critics see the state exemptions as a loophole to water down the Clinton plan.
"We don't run state parks, and we don't believe governors should run national forests," said Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., who sponsored the failed amendment blocking the exemptions.
Excluding the Tongass and Chugach, which together have more than 14 million acres of roadless areas, threatens to gut the policy all by itself, Inslee said.
Although the overall acreage is small, environmentalists say the timber industry will gain access to the best of the remaining old-growth timber in the Tongass, the nation's largest rain forest. About 50 timber sales are pending in roadless areas of the Tongass.