FORESTS: One-year delay on roadless rule expected

Greenwire: (05/28/2009) Noelle Straub and Eric Bontrager, E&E reporters The Obama administration is expected to announce today that it will take a one-year delay on making any long-term decisions on the controversial Clinton-era Roadless Area Conservation Rule. Instead, the Agriculture Department secretary for the next year will have sole power to make decisions on building roads and harvesting timber on nearly all the areas covered by the 2001 rule.

During the presidential campaign, Obama expressed his support for the roadless rule, which granted blanket protection to about 58 million acres of federal land nationwide but has been mired in legal battles ever since President Clinton put it in place just before leaving office. USDA is expected to issue a memorandum immediately giving the secretary decision-making authority over the construction and reconstruction of roads and the cutting, sale or removal of timber in most of the inventoried Forest Service roadless areas.

The memo would not set any policy for the management of such areas. It includes roadless areas in Alaska, but it will not apply to those in Idaho, which wrote its own roadless area plan. Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, praised the move. "This announcement is a major victory for our National Forests, and is proof positive that the new Administration is serious about turning the page on the legacy of the Bush Administration, which was bent on chopping away at the health and future of America's forests," Rahall said in a statement. "I see this one year time-out as a major step forward in protecting inventoried roadless areas across the country, but these wild forests need permanent protection to continue providing clean water, wildlife habitat, and boundless recreational opportunities."

A coalition of environmental groups has been urging President Obama to quickly use his administrative powers to implement the Clinton-era Roadless Area Conservation Rule. Currently, the Clinton-era rule applies to 10 states because of a court decision late last year. California Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Laporte limited the rule to apply to New Mexico and the nine states covered by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals while lawsuits on the issue continue through the appeals process. Laporte made the decision after the Bush administration asked both her and U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer in Wyoming to at least temporarily lift or modify their conflicting decisions on the rule, saying the Forest Service faced a "Hobbesian choice" over which of the court orders to disobey.

Brimmer threw out the roadless rule in 2003, Laporte reinstated it in 2006, and Brimmer threw it out again last year. Only two states, Colorado and Idaho, embarked on the process the Bush administration put in place to petition for protections. If the Clinton rule is reinstated, the completed Idaho rule could stand, the groups said, but they predicted that Colorado would drop its unfinished efforts.