Alaska loses another fight on Roadless Rule
By MARY KAUFFMAN
October 01, 2017
The roadless rule was imposed by the Clinton administration just days before leaving office in January 2001. The rule prohibits timber harvesting and road construction on 9.5 million acres in the Tongass National Forest, an area nearly twice the size of New Jersey, and impacts every community and industry in that region. The rule also applies to 5.4 million acres of land in the Chugach National Forest in southcentral Alaska.
U.S. District Judge Richard Leon dismissed with prejudice last Wednesday, Sept. 20th, finding the plaintiffs failed to prove that the Department of Agriculture had violated any laws, dismissing the 16-year-old case.
Alaska and the industries wanted to exempt from the rule from the Tongass National Forest. The Tongass with16.8 million acres is the nation’s largest of the 192 million acres in the National Forest system.
“While I am still reviewing this decision, I am deeply disappointed to see it handed down,” U. S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said in a prepared statement on September 25, 2017. “A judge can dismiss a case, but Alaskans cannot dismiss the negative impacts the roadless rule is having on our communities. The rule has decimated our timber industry and serves mainly to prevent the access needed to construct everything from roads and power lines to energy and mining projects. I recognize the damage this rule is causing, particularly in Southeast, and will pursue every possible legislative and administrative option to exempt us from it.”
Murkowski is chairman of both the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee.
Congressman Don Young (R-AK) also issued a prepared statement commenting on the court's recent decision.
“The Clinton-era Roadless Rule was nothing more than a last-ditch effort to end the multiple-use mandate of federal forest lands – something that is required by law, but often ignored by the ivory tower elite,” said Congressman Don Young. “Not only did this rule violate the authorities granted to Alaska within ANILCA, it was done without proper consultation or consideration of the countless communities that rely on responsible resource development."
Young said, “At the same time Congress is being asked to address our nation’s inability to deal with catastrophic forest fires and the need for improved forest management practices – including access to protect at-risk areas or remove dead and dying trees – we see our hands being tied by this ill-conceive rule. If any reasonable form of Alaska’s timber industry is to exist in the near future, it’s imperative we restore Alaska’s exemption from the Roadless Rule – through legislation or administrative action – as quickly as possible. Regardless of the court’s ruling, I will be working to outline a path forward that exempts Alaska from a rule that continues to kill economies, destroy livelihoods and prevent responsible development. When the court fails Alaska, I believe it’s Congress' responsibility to act.”
Judge Leon wrote in the 45-page ruling: “Alaska seems to want this court to presume that, because the USDA conducted such a far-reaching rulemaking in an extraordinary short time period, the USDA necessarily did not satisfy NEPA’s [National Environmental Policy Act] goals of adequate public disclosure and informed decision making.”
Judge Leon rejected that argument, finding that the USDA “adequately considered” each concern in applying the rule to the Tongass Forest.
The Roadless Area Conservation Rule, enacted by President Bill Clinton in 2001, prohibits the damaging development, including commercial logging and the construction of most roads. In 2000, the U.S. Forest Service was already maintaining close to 400,000 miles of roads, more than the country’s entire interstate highway system.
According to the National Resource Defense Council, the timber industry — and states like Alaska where the industry holds a lot of influence — has for years been challenging these protections, and environmental groups, including NRDC, have fought off numerous efforts to overturn them.
Alaska had sought to exempt the 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest, America’s largest, from the Roadless Rule. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected that effort in March 2016. The court's recent decision in favor of groups represented by NRDC and Earthjustice applied to the nationwide rule — a huge victory for our pristine public lands, for the wildlife that inhabit them, and for future generations who will also be able to cherish them.
“This rule has weathered endless attacks by corporate interests and their allies,” says Niel Lawrence, NRDC’s Alaska director. “But it’s as enduring as the old-growth forest it protects. No rule has saved as much federal forestland from destruction. Now it has itself been saved, once again.”
The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia had previously dismissed the case for exceeding the six-year statute of limitations. An appeals court overturned that ruling, saying the clock started ticking when a federal court reinstated the rule in 2006, not when the rule was first issued in 2001. Alaska filed its challenge in 2011, seeking to overturn the rule on multiple grounds. Today’s lengthy and careful ruling finds that each of those claims lack merit.
Alaska has been fighting the roadless rule — and defending a 2003 exemption to that rule for the Tongass National Forest, the nation’s largest — for years. In March, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the state’s appeal of a ruling striking down the Tongass exemption, ending that case.
“The Roadless Rule was adopted with overwhelming public support nationwide,” said Earthjustice attorney Tom Waldo. “It protects 50 million acres of public lands that provide clean water for communities, habitat for imperiled fish and wildlife, and some of the best opportunities Americans have for fishing, hunting, camping, and other recreation. Today’s decision should put to rest the long legal battle over this commonsense rule.”
"Today's [Sept. 20. 2017] decision provides a critical affirmation of the importance of the Roadless Rule in protecting our nation's and the state of Alaska's most essential intact habitat and forested lands,” said Meredith Trainor, Executive Director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.
Trainor said, “This precedent-setting decision should remind all Americans of the importance of protecting our public lands from attacks by industry groups seeking to undermine our most fundamental and cherished environmental protections. The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is proud to have played a part in defending this vital rule."
“At a time when the Trump Administration is moving to drill, saw apart, and sell-out our public lands, the millions of Americans who spoke up in support of wild forests have something to celebrate” said Rolf Skar, forest campaign director for Greenpeace USA.
“We’re grateful that yet another court has upheld the roadless rule and protected our pristine public lands,” said Marc Fink, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The critical importance of these large, untouched forests has only increased since the rule was adopted in 2001. We hope this decision finally puts the issue to rest so these richly biodiverse wildlands are safe from the timber and fossil fuel industries.”
"At a time when the Trump administration seems hell-bent on taking away protections from our public lands and the logging and drilling industries are eager to get their hands on every acre they can, it is heartening to see the rule of law prevail," said Dan Ritzman, Regional Campaign Director for the Our Wild America Campaign of the Sierra Club.
Ritzman said, "Our public lands are meant for this and coming generations to enjoy, and the land supports a thriving economy based on outdoor recreation that would otherwise be decimated."
“This rule has weathered endless attacks by corporate interests and their allies,” commented Niel Lawrence, NRDC’s Alaska Director. “But it’s as enduring as the old-growth forest it protects,” he added. “No measure has saved as much federal forestland from destruction. Now the rule has itself again been saved.”
Groups intervening in Alaska’s case to defend the rule included Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Alaska Center for the Environment, The Boat Company, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife, Tongass Conservation Society, Center for Biological Diversity, and Greenpeace. The groups are represented by attorneys from Earthjustice and NRDC.
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