Judge Chides U.S. on Roadless Forest Protections
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A big battle over development in the nation's national forests took a new turn today. A federal judge in San Francisco sided with environmentalists and overturned some new Bush administration rules on building roads in wild forests. The judge reinstated an earlier road building plan crafted under President Bill Clinton.
NPR's John Nielsen reports.
JOHN NIELSEN: People have been fighting over how to manage the national forests since they were created back in 1891. When Bill Clinton was president, the biggest of these fights concerned the fate of roughly 60 million acres worth of mostly pristine forests found in 40 states. Loggers and others wanted new roads built and old roads repaired. Environmentalists wanted a total ban on all forms of roadwork.
Just before he left office in 2001, President Clinton tried to give the green groups everything they'd wished for. After more than a year of hearings, he imposed the total ban. Future generations would thank him, he said.
President BILL CLINTON: These uniquely American landscapes are sanctuaries to hike and hunt and ski and fish. They're a source of clean water for millions of our fellow citizens. They are havens for wildlife and home to about one quarter of all threatened or endangered species in our nation.
NIELSEN: But when the Bush administration took office shortly afterwards, they made it clear that they didn't like this ban. Neither did Western governors at the time, like Idaho's Dirk Kempthorne. He attacked the ban as a one size fits all solution that had been forced upon the states.
Mr. DIRK KEMPTHORNE (Secretary of the Interior): We were completely shut out of the opportunity for input from the very people the roadless rule was purportedly designed to protect.
NIELSEN: Kempthorne became the administration's secretary of the interior last May. Before that, he helped the Bush White House craft an alternative to the Clinton-era ban. It gave states like Idaho more power to decide when and where roads could be built. When this plan was released last year, environmental groups filed suit almost immediately, arguing in part that the administration had failed to consider the environmental impacts of their plan.
Today, U.S. District Judge Judy Laporte agreed with the environmentalists and ordered that the Clinton era ban be reinstated. Mike Anderson, a lawyer with the Wilderness Society, was ecstatic.
Mr. MIKE ANDERSON (The Wilderness Society): It's a slam dunk victory for the states and the environmentalists in terms of both the decision that the Bush administration had violated the law when it got rid of the 2001 roadless rule and that the 2001 rule will be reinstated, effective immediately, across all the national forests with the exception of Alaska.
NIELSEN: Spokesmen for the Bush administration said they were studying this decision. Spokesmen for the logging industry made it clear that they will challenge it in court. So did Don Klusman, a spokesman for the California Association of Four Wheel Drive Clubs. He says the ban on building new roads and repairing bad ones will close roughly a third of the forest system off to the people who use it most.
Mr. DON KLUSMAN (California Association of Four Wheel Drive Clubs): Our main focus is to keep these areas open for recreation, because a lot of these have a road in them that go to a particular spot where people enjoy the great outdoors. And if those roads are closed, how are they supposed to get there to fish, to hunt, to just basically ride or drive on these roads?
NIELSEN: Meanwhile, some states still want to move ahead with road building programs developed under the Bush plan. Today Idaho's new governor, Jim Risch, formally filed his state's plan with the Forest Service. Risch says the legal battle being fought here isn't over yet.
Mr. JAMES RISCH (Governor, Idaho): Whatever happens, we will continue on with this process. It is only a step. It is a step in a lower district court case, and there's going to be lots more happening. After today, the federal government now has in its hands what the people of Idaho want.
NIELSEN: But for the moment, state plans like Idaho's are stuck in limbo.
John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.
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