A federal judge in Idaho blocked a ban on road building in one-third of the United States national forests, saying the Clinton administration rule needed to be amended or it would cause “irreparable harm.”
The decision yesterday by U.S. District Judge Edward J. Lodge came less than a week after the Bush administration said it would allow the rule to take effect tomorrow while work continued on revisions to allow more local reaction.
Judge Lodge labeled the Bush plan a “Band-Aid approach” and said allowing the rule to take effect “ignores the reality … that once something of this magnitude is set in motion, momentum is irresistible, options are closed and agency commitments, if not set in concrete, will be the subject of litigation for years to come.”
However, he encouraged the Bush administration to move ahead with its study of possible revisions “because the ultimate responsibility lies with the government and/or its agencies and not with the court.”
One of the many regulations President Clinton pushed through in his final weeks in office, the rule would prevent logging, road construction and other activities on 58.5 million acres of federal forests, an area more than twice the size of Ohio.
Ennvironmentalists praised the ban as a way to protect the land from developers and preserve wildlife habitats. Opponents say the rules needlessly place valuable resources off limits.
The state of Idaho, timber giant Boise Cascade and a variety of groups representing farmers, snowmobilers and others had filed a lawsuit asking Judge Lodge to block the rule. In his decision issued in Boise, the judge said he agreed with their arguments that allowing the rule to take effect “poses serious risks of irreparable harm.”
The Justice Department is reviewing the order and has not made a decision on how to proceed, spokeswoman Cristine Romano said. The department could accept the order or appeal it within two months to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Boise Cascade spokesman Mike Moser said the company maintained all along that “the roadless rule was predetermined and one-sided and failed to consider the long-term consequences for managing the health of the national forests.”
The company and state also said the Forest Service didnt follow proper procedures when it made the rule.
Idaho Attorney General Al Lance praised Judge Lodges ruling, which he said shouldnt be construed as anti-environment.
“There are no bulldozers idling at the forests edge. Blocking this illegal rule will not force anyone to build a road,” he said.
Western Republicans argued during the rules creation that it would amount to a sweeping mandate from Washington that didnt take into account the conditions of each forest.
“In issuing the preliminary injunction, he saw this rule is a flawed rule and a flawed process,” said Sen. Larry E. Craig, Idaho Republican.
Rep. James V. Hansen, chairman — of the House Resources Committee, said the judges analysis “hit the nail squarely on the head” on the matter of protecting the forests from wildfires.
“Last year, 17 people died and 860 buildings were destroyed in the worst wildfire season this country has ever seen,” the Utah Republican said in a statement. “The prognosis for this summer is even worse. … Judge Lodges ruling lets us get in there and pull out diseased and dead wood. It lets us save lives and try to head off pending disaster.”
Environmentalists say they plan to appeal the decision, which they blamed in part on the Bush administrations failure to defend vigorously the Clinton administrations last-minute maneuver in court.
“We will be glad to fight it in the courts,” said Doug Honnold, attorney for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. “We think it is a decision that is inconsistent with environmental rules.”
The vast majority of roadless federal forests are in the West, including parts of Idahos Bitterroot range and Alaskas Tongass, viewed by environmentalists as North Americas rain forest.