Six years after the Bush administration came to office seeking to reverse Bill Clinton's order for protecting roadless areas on federal lands, the issue continues to smolder.
A federal judge has blocked the administration from lifting protections on nearly 50 million acres of backcountry. Several governors are suing Uncle Sam over the issue. And other governors are pushing ahead with their own plans to balance environmental protection with mining, logging, oil and gas development, and other commercial uses.
At stake are vast areas of federal land, most of it forested tracts across the Ameri-can West where the sound of road-building bulldozers has never been heard. Environmentalists say such areas are valuable for wildlife habitat, preserving water and air quality, and providing a wildernesslike experience. Many hunters and fishermen want them kept pristine as well.
But many areas also are potential sources of timber, minerals, gas, and oil. Developing such natural resources can be done in a way that protects the environment, administration and industry officials assert.
Like many environmental issues, sorting out this one has involved lengthy lawsuits.
In September, US Magistrate Elizabeth Laporte in San Francisco ruled that the Bush administration's repeal of the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, as the Clinton order is called, violates both the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
In another opinion last week, Judge Laporte blocked plans to extract natural resources in roadless areas, including some 300 controversial oil and gas leases in seven western states the US Forest Service issued in recent years.
Administration officials made "a clear error of judgment" in attempting to open up roadless areas without the proper environmental assessments, Laporte ruled.
The administration had sought to require governors to petition Washington if they wanted to protect federal roadless land in their states. Laporte ruled that illegal as well. But not before governors in Virginia, North and South Carolina, New Mexico, and California had petitioned the federal government for full protection of roadless areas in their states.
Meanwhile, governors in other states – Idaho, Colorado, and Utah among them – want to lift or ease some of the restrictions imposed by the Clinton rule.
The lawsuit, which resulted in the recent ruling, was brought by the attorneys general of Oregon, Washington, California, and New Mexico, plus 20 conservation groups.
For its part, the administration argues that the recent court ruling should not be made retroactive. "Neither the [US Forest Service] nor the forest resource users, who have relied on decisions made by the agency for the past six years should be faulted for acting under the law and regulations in place at the time they acted," US Justice Department lawyers said in their court filing.
Administration officials have not said whether they will appeal the ruling.
Critics say former President Clinton rushed the roadless rule into effect just before he left office in 2001. But supporters of the rule point out that it was adopted only after three years of official study, 600 public hearings, and some 2.5 million public comments in favor of the rule.
"I realize that no rule can perfectly satisfy everyone, but the Clinton roadless rule struck a chord with Americans," says Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D) of New Mexico, incoming chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. In Oregon, more than 90 percent of the 79,000 people who submitted comments favored leaving areas roadless.
The need now, says Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D) is to "focus on more critical forest priorities – like addressing declining forest health, catastrophic wildfires, and creating sustainable and predictable harvest levels."
The legal and political debate preceding the recent court ruling did not prevent some development in roadless areas from taking place. In August, loggers began cutting down trees in the Siskiyou National Forest's Kalmiopsis Roadless Area in southern Oregon.
While such commercial development of natural resources can benefit local economies, government and private studies have shown that logging in national forests often costs the federal treasury more than it earns. Subsidized road-building in national forests is one of the main reasons.
The original roadless protection rule covered some 59 million acres around the country, nearly a third of all national forestland, most of it from the Rocky Mountains westward. Laporte's order covers all but about 9 million acres in Alaska's Tongass National Forest.