SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The 9th Circuit on Wednesday restored a roadless rule that protects more than 58 million acres of national forest after the rule was effectively repealed by a 2005 Forest Service regulation. Judge Beezer said it was “unreasonable for the Forest Service to assert that the environment, listed species, and their critical habitats would be unaffected by this regulatory change.”
The three-judge panel upheld an order barring the Forest Service’s reversal of the Clinton-era roadless rule. The rule banned road construction and logging on 58.5 million acres of national forest in 38 states and Puerto Rico.
Two days before the roadless rule went into effect on May 12, 2001, a federal judge in Idaho stopped the Forest Service from implementing “all aspects” of the rule.
In July 2003, a federal judge in Wyoming also enjoined the rule and later refused to reconsider his decision.
In both cases, environmental groups successfully intervened and appealed.
While the suits were pending, the Forest Service adopted the so-called “state petitions rule,” which eliminated the contested portions of the roadless rule.
The 10th Circuit in Denver dismissed the appeal, saying it could no longer rule on the “validity of the nonexistent Roadless Rule.”
Environmental groups and various Western states challenged the new regulation in federal court in San Francisco, claiming it violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act. Specifically, the plaintiffs accused the Forest Service of bypassing the usual procedures in reversing the roadless rule.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture claimed that the state petitions rule was “merely procedural in nature and scope,” meaning the government didn’t have to perform an environmental analysis.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Laporte rejected this argument, and the 9th Circuit agreed, also dismissing the USDA’s claim that the roadless rule was never “meaningfully” in force.
“This argument misses the mark,” Judge Beezer wrote. “That the Roadless Rule did not interfere with forest planning measures does not mean that the months of limited human intervention it facilitated were not without beneficial effect on the roadless areas and their complex ecosystems.” (Emphasis in original).
The USDA further argued that it could reverse the roadless rule without environmental analysis based on the Wyoming judge’s injunction, and that the 10th Circuit couldn’t review the nonexistent rule.
But the 9th Circuit agreed with Laporte that this self-serving argument “leaves too much to the vicissitudes of the timing of the litigation.”
Because the repeal of the roadless rule violated federal environmental law, the court concluded, the district court did not abuse its discretion in reinstating the rule’s protections.