In a victory for environmentalists, a federal judge Thursday upheld a Clinton-era ban on roads on 58.5 million acres of public land nationwide.
The ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstates the Roadless Rule, which preserves acreage as virtual wilderness and forbids all roads and development on specified areas of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land.
The acreage at issue is equal to about three-fourths the size of California, and includes parts of the Stanislaus National Forest.
Attempting to overturn the Roadless Rule was one of the first actions President George W. Bush initiated after taking office. The rule has been tied up in court ever since. "Obviously I'm delighted," said Jay Watson, director of The Wilderness Society's regional office in San Francisco. "We hope that the Bush administration will honor the decision."
The verdict came one day after the Bush administration unveiled a string of proposals to waive numerous environmental impact studies on public land.
Bush representatives Wednesday said the proposals would reduce red tape and provide faster, easier forest access for loggers to remove underbrush that fuels wildfires.
Many environmentalists called Bush's proposal a holiday treat for the timber industry.
After a summer in which wildfires torched 7.1 million acres in the western U.S., fire protection is a top priority for most people living west of the Mississippi River. But how to accomplish it is a subject of hot debate.
Most environmentalists and logging industry representatives agree that after almost a century of extinguishing all fires across the west, forest floors are clogged with brush and tinder that fuel catastrophic blazes.
But they disagree on how to fix the problem, and those differences dramatically play themselves out in the Roadless Rule debate.
Some say eliminating possible roads restricts access to areas that need thinning, and jeopardizes the hope of reducing fire risk.
Others say the roadless areas are so remote, thinning there is fruitless, so attention should focus on the many homes and communities that need protection.
The recent court case ensued after an Idaho judge put the Roadless Rule on hold in May 2001, in response to a lawsuit by the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho and off-highway vehicle, snowmobile, livestock and timber industry groups against Forest Service and USDA officials. Part of their complaint was that the public was not adequately involved in Roadless Rule formation.
Del Albright of Mokelumne Hill, spokesman for The Blue Ribbon Coalition an off-highway vehicle group said the group's attorney is looking over the ruling and hasn't yet figured how it would affect off-roaders.
But Albright's opposition to the Roadless Rule has nothing to do with fire, he said. Instead, he was disgusted that some so-called roadless areas have roads that could potentially be taken out of commission.
"We set aside areas that are pristine, without the presence of humankind showing. Not places where we've been traveling 50, 60 or 100 years," Albright said.
Sierra Resource Management President Mike Albrecht said despite the announcement, his business logging continues as usual.
"I'm not overly concerned by this one ruling," he said. His company thins forest areas not only for timber, but to reduce fire fuel.
"As we move forward to better forest policy, there's going to be some setbacks, and we'll work through those setbacks."