Washington — A federal appeals court Wednesday blocked road construction in more than 50 million acres of pristine national forests.
The decision by a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstates a 2001 rule put in place by President Bill Clinton just before he left office that prohibited commercial logging, mining and other development on 58.5 million acres of national forest in 38 states and Puerto Rico. A subsequent Bush administration rule had cleared the way for more commercial activity on the land.
The latest ruling, issued in San Francisco, sides with several Western states and environmental groups that sued the Forest Service after it reversed the so-called “Roadless Rule” in 2005.
The Obama administration has ordered a one-year moratorium on most road building in national forests. A May 28 directive by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack gives him sole decision-making authority over all proposed forest management or road construction projects in designated roadless areas in all states except Idaho.
Idaho was one of two states that developed its own roadless rule under the 2005 Bush policy, which gave states more control over whether and how to block road building in remote forests.
Environmental advocates hailed the 9th Circuit ruling, which they said was needed even though Bush is no longer in office.
“This is a huge step. It puts the roadless rule back in place,” said Kristen Boyles, a lawyer for the environmental group Earthjustice, which represented a coalition of environmental groups in the case.
Boyles, who has fought for nearly eight years to uphold the 2001 roadless rule, said the 9th Circuit ruling “is what we need to be able to have the protection on the ground for the last wild places and for hikers and campers.”
A spokeswoman for Vilsack could not immediately be reached for comment. But the spokeswoman, Chris Mather, has said Vilsack could still approve roads in remote forests if necessary, for example, to protect public safety or forest health.
Last month, Vilsack approved a timber sale in a roadless area of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. The sale lets Pacific Log and Lumber clear-cut about 380 acres in the Tongass, the largest federal forest. About 2 miles of roads will be constructed to allow the logging.