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by Matthew Preusch, The Oregonian
A federal court Wednesday reinstated protection for tens of millions of acres of federal forests in Oregon and across the West.
But the ruling from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals does not end the uncertainty of the long-debated "roadless rule" for national forests.
The Roadless Area Conservation Rule, put forward in 2001 by the Clinton administration, banned road construction or logging in 58.5 million acres of largely undeveloped forest lands, nearly a third of the total area managed by the Forest Service.
Almost immediately, the rule was challenged in court. The Bush administration chose not to defend it and in 2005 replaced it with the State Petitions Rule, which left it to the states to decide which roadless areas in their boundaries should be protected.
And the last decade has seen competing suits and appeals by states, ATV users, the timber industry, and environmental group, leading to a series of often contradictory rulings from federal courts.
On Wednesday, a panel of three judges determined the Bush rule illegal, and the judges reinstated the Clinton era rule except in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska and in Idaho, which created its own plan for its roadless forests.
"The Forest Service's use of a categorical exemption to repeal the nationwide protections of the Roadless Rule and to invite States to pursue varying rules for roadless area management was unreasonable," said the ruling, which upheld a lower court's decision.
The Forest Service, the judges said, failed to comply with national environmental laws and wrongly asserted that the change to the roadless rule wouldn't affect endangered species or their habitat.
"This is the final word forever on the validity of the Bush repeal," said Kristen Boyles, an attorney for Earthjustice who argued the case.
But it's not the final word on roadless forests.
Environmental groups are appealing a Wyoming district court judge's decision from last year repealing the Clinton roadless rule.
"We're really in a state of limbo here until we get this whole thing sorted out," said Tom Partin, executive director of the American Forest Resource Council, whose members rely on logs from federal forests.
Oregon was among those states that sued the federal government to keep the roadless rule in place, and today Gov. Ted Kulongoski praised the ruling.
"I hope that after years of litigation, the new administration allows this ruling to stand so we can end the courtroom battles and instead focus our efforts on working together to both protect our remaining wild areas as well as develop more comprehensive forest management policies that support our timber industry while protecting our environment," Kulongoski said in a statement.
The Obama administration hasn't said yet whether it will defend the Clinton rule in the Wyoming court battle.
"We are actively exploring this positive development and how it intersects with the various roadless discussions taking place around the country," said Jay Jensen, Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment in the Department of Agriculture.
In May, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said any project proposed in roadless forests would have to get his personal approval.
Right now there is one such potential project in Oregon, a forest thinning proposal in the Umpqua National Forest near Diamond Lake.
About 900 acres of that project would be in inventoried roadless forests, according to the group Oregon Wild.
"What the Forest Service is proposing on the doorstep of Crater Lake National Park is harmful, unnecessary, and illegal," said Oregon Wild's Doug Heiken in a statement. "The ruling today backs that up."
-- Matthew Preusch, email@example.com