FEDERAL judge blocks road ban in national forests

Friday, May 11th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A federal judge in Idaho blocked a ban on road building in a third of America's national forests, saying the Clinton administration rule needed to be amended or it would cause ``irreparable harm.''

The decision Thursday by U.S. District Judge Edward J. Lodge came less than a week after the Bush administration said it would allow the rule to take effect this Saturday while work continued on revisions to allow more local input.

Lodge labeled the Bush plan a ``Band-Aid approach'' and said allowing the rule to take effect ``ignores the reality ... that once something of this magnitude is set in motion, momentum is irresistible, options are closed and agency commitments, if not set in concrete, will be the subject of litigation for years to come.''

However, in issuing a preliminary injunction stalling the ban, Lodge encouraged the Bush administration to continue moving ahead with its study of possible revisions ``because the ultimate responsibility lies with the government and/or its agencies and not with the court.''

One of President Clinton's key environmental legacies, the rule would prevent logging, road construction and other activities on 58.5 million acres of federal forests, an area more than twice the size of Ohio.

The ban was praised by environmentalists as a way to protect the nation's most pristine forest lands from developers and preserve critical wildlife habitats. Opponents, including the timber and mining industries, say the rules needlessly place valuable resources off-limits.

The state of Idaho, timber giant Boise Cascade and a variety of groups representing farmers, snowmobilers and others had filed a lawsuit asking Lodge to block the rule. In his decision issued in Boise, the judge said he agreed with their arguments that allowing the rule to take effect ``poses serious risks of irreparable harm.''

The Justice Department is reviewing the order and has not made a decision yet on how to proceed, spokeswoman Cristine Romano said. The department could accept the order or appeal it within two months to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, who oversees the Forest Service, said the department will move ahead with an effort to revise the policy and find a ``responsible process'' that protects roadless areas.

Boise Cascade spokesman Mike Moser said the company maintained all along that ``the roadless rule was predetermined and one-sided and failed to consider the long-term consequences for managing the health of the national forests.''

The company and state also said the Forest Service didn't follow proper procedures when it made the rule.

Idaho Attorney General Al Lance praised Lodge's ruling, which he said shouldn't be construed as anti-environment.

``There are no bulldozers idling at the forests' edge. Blocking this illegal rule will not force anyone to build a road,'' he said.

Environmentalists say they plan to appeal the decision, which they blamed in part on the Bush administration's failure to vigorously defend the rule in court.

``We will be glad to fight it in the courts,'' said Doug Honnold, attorney for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, which represented conservation groups that intervened in the suit. ``We think it is a decision that is inconsistent with environmental rules.''

The timber industry praised the decision.

``It's what we said all along, that it was clearly illegal and it is now time for the administration to move on,'' said Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group based in Portland, Ore.

The Clinton administration began creating the rule about three years ago, but did not issue them until two weeks before President Clinton left office. The rule was supposed to take effect in March but the Bush administration delayed implementation until May 12 while it conducted a review.

Western Republicans, including Colorado Rep. Scott McInnis and Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, both chairmen of forest subcommittees, argued during the rule's creation that it would amount to a sweeping mandate from Washington that didn't take into account the conditions of each forest. Craig applauded Lodge's decision.

``In issuing the preliminary injunction, he saw this rule is a flawed rule and a flawed process,'' Craig said.

The vast majority of federal forests areas that would have been roped off by the ban are in the West, including parts of Idaho's Bitterroot range and Alaska's Tongass, viewed by environmentalists as North America's rain forest. Smaller sections are scattered across the country from Florida's Apalachicola National Forest and Virginia's George Washington National Forest to New Hampshire's White Mountains.