Federal Court Opens Roads in National Forests

Published September 1, 2003

A federal judge has struck down a government-imposed ban on building new roads in a third of America’s national forests.

In a 100-page July 14 ruling, Judge Clarence Brimmer rejected the ban, hastily enacted during the final hours of the Clinton administration, as “a thinly veiled attempt to designate ‘wilderness areas’ in violation of the clear and unambiguous process established by the Wilderness Act.”

According to Brimmer, “in its rush to give President Clinton lasting notoriety in the annals of environmentalism, the Forest Service’s shortcuts and bypassing of the procedural requirements of NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act) has done lasting damage to our very laws designed to protect the environment.”

Brimmer pointed out that only Congress can create wilderness areas under the Wilderness Act. Moreover, according to Brimmer, the Clinton administration violated the National Environmental Policy Act by acting in “political haste” and circumventing proper procedures. Most notably, the administration did not allow enough time for public input before finalizing its roadless rule.

Concluded Brimmer, “there is no gainsaying the fact that the Roadless Rule was driven through the administrative process and adopted by the Forest Service for the political capital of the Clinton administration without taking the ‘hard look’ that NEPA required.”

The Sierra Club, Wilderness Society, and Natural Resources Defense Council were among roadless rule supporters who intervened in the case, State of Wyoming v. USDA.

The ruling is the second of its kind to be issued by a federal district court. A similar ruling was issued by another federal judge in 2001, but was reversed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, located in San Francisco.

Brimmer’s decision, if appealed, would be reviewed by the Denver-based Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. His ruling is much more likely to upheld by the Tenth Circuit, which is more middle-of-the-road than the left-leaning Ninth Circuit. Unless it is overturned on appeal, the ruling is likely to carry the force of law across the country–including in the Ninth Circuit.

A Welcome Ruling

Wyoming Attorney General Pat Crank, whose state has been especially affected by the roadless rule, applauded the decision and the fact that the ruling “has implications throughout the entire United States.”

House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo (R-California) also praised the decision.

“This decision is great news for those who support the rule of law and those who support common-sense land management plans,” Pombo said. “The Roadless Rule would arbitrarily fence-off land and throw away the keys. This ‘Don’t Touch’ management plan would also block recreation activities and prohibit critical maintenance to prevent catastrophic forest fires. When has there ever been common sense or smart environmentalism in planning to do nothing?”

“The decision of the federal district court to set aside the Roadless Rule is just and necessary,” said Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nevada). “The Roadless Rule Initiative introduced by then-President Bill Clinton would effectively lock-up our public lands and lock-out the American people. It was a needless land grab that obviously circumvented Congress, clearly shut-out the public, and according to the Federal Court, ultimately violated the law.”

“Despite all of the previous administration’s efforts to spin it another way, the Clinton roadless rule was bad for local economies, bad for the health of our forests, and bad for the environment,” added Rep. Barbara Cubin (R-Wyoming). “Worse, it could prove to restrict access for firefighters as we settle in for another difficult fire season. This was a poorly drawn and ill-conceived rule, and I’m glad it’s been overturned.”

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

Judge Clarence Brimmer’s 100-page decision in State of Wyoming v. USDA is available in Adobe Acrobat’s PDF format through PolicyBot, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to http://www.heartland.org, click on the PolicyBot icon, and search for document #12634