U.S. roadless rule weathers court challenge from Wyoming, Colorado Mining Association

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals denied a state of Wyoming and Colorado Mining Association petition Thursday afternoon that sought to overturn the 2001 National Forest roadless rule.

The ruling reaffirmed a three-judge decision issued on Oct. 21, 2011, that upheld the roadless rule, passed under former President Bill Clinton, which prohibits development on nearly 60 million acres.

Thompson Divide
Thompson Divide near Carbondale (Image: Thompson Divide Coalition)
“Appellant’s petition for rehearing is denied,” the decision reads (pdf). “As no member of the panel and no judge in regular active service on the court requested the court be polled, that petition is also denied.”

The Court of Appeals decision harkens back to 2008 when a federal court in Wyoming found that the roadless rule violated environmental law. When the 10th Circuit overturned that 2008 ruling last fall, it opened the door for the Obama administration to enforce the Clinton rule.

“[The] court decision gives President Obama a green light to implement one of the nation’s most important conservation polices,” said Jane Danowitz, director of the Pew Environment Group’s U.S. public lands program. “With the last legal barrier cleared, the administration should move quickly to enforce the roadless rule as the law of the land.”

It is possible the national rule could land before the Supreme Court.

In the meantime, Republicans in the House led by California Congressman Kevin McCarthy are promoting the Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act, which would essentially invalidate the 2001 Clinton rule. Dozens of GOP congressmen, including Doug Lamborn and Mike Coffman in Colorado, are co-sponsoring the bill. Many Colorado businesses oppose the legislation, saying it poses “a serious threat” to the state’s outdoor-recreation-based economy.

For a decade, the federal roadless rule has been immersed in legal challenges. The uncertainty prompted Colorado and Idaho to craft their own rules. The Department of Agriculture is reviewing Colorado’s plan, which would allow exemptions for coal mining, logging and expansion of ski areas.

Now that there is a final decision in the 10th Circuit, conservationists say Colorado’s rule isn’t needed.

“The court’s action eliminates the need for the administration to pursue a separate policy in Colorado, undertaken when the roadless rule’s legal status was in doubt,” Danowitz said. “The Colorado plan would open up a majority of the state’s best backcountry to coal mining, drilling, and other large-scale activity. The importance of a national policy to preserve what remains of America’s pristine forests cannot be overstated. Without the roadless rule, protection of these areas would be left to the patchwork management system that has resulted in millions of acres lost to industrial development.”

Nonetheless, sportsmen’s groups, other forest users and special interests continue to work with Colorado officials and the U.S. Forest Service to tweak the Colorado rule and improve it.

Troy Hooper covers environmental policy for the American Independent News Network. His work has been published in The Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, Huffington Post, San Francisco Weekly, Playboy, New York Post, People and dozens of other publications. Hooper has covered the Winter Olympics in Italy, an extreme ski camp in South America and gone behind the scenes with Hunter S. Thompson on election night in 2004. Born and raised in Boulder, Hooper has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of California at Santa Barbara.

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