CHEYENNE, Wyo. -- Environmental groups hailed the U.S. Supreme Court's rejection of an appeal challenging a federal rule that bars development on 50 million acres of roadless areas in national forests, ending one of the main legal battles that had left the rule in doubt for more than a decade.
"The Supreme Court action validates arguably one of most important public land conservation polices in a generation," said Jane Danowitz, a director of the Pew Environment Group, which has worked on the rulemaking since 1998. "Without the roadless rule and its national standard of protection these millions of acres of pristine forest land could be opened to a variety of development, including logging, mining and drilling."
The justices said Monday they will leave in place a federal appeals court decision in a case brought by the state of Wyoming and the Colorado Mining Association that upheld the so-called roadless rule that took effect late in the presidency of Bill Clinton.
Wyoming and the Colorado Mining Association said closing so much forest land to development has had serious consequences for residents of Western states and the logging, mining and drilling industries.
Supporters of the rule said the nation's forests need protection from development to preserve forested areas that provide wildlife and natural resource habitat for hunting, fishing and recreation as well as other benefits. They note the rule has exceptions to allow logging in order to protect the forest from severe wildfires and for public safety.
"We're glad the Supreme Court put the final nail in the coffin of Wyoming's case," Tim Preso, an attorney with the environmental law firm Earthjustice, said.
The decision means there's just one more legal challenge pending against the rule. The challenge filed by Alaska is pending in federal court in Washington, D.C.
Danowitz expressed confidence that Monday's Supreme Court decision would mean the demise of the Alaska challenge as well.
"When you get an action by the highest judicial body in the land that validates the roadless rule that bodes well for any future litigation," she said.
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead said restrictions on 3 million acres of national forest in the state would have economic consequences for the state, which relies heavily on the mineral extraction industry.
"While I am disappointed in the decision, I am ready to move on continuing to work with the (U.S.) Forest Service about these concerns," Mead said in a short statement.
Wyoming's challenge centered on the contention that the U.S. Forest Service essentially declared forests to be wilderness areas, a power that rests with Congress under the 1964 Wilderness Act.
The U.S. Forest Service currently manages more than 190 million acres of land used for multiple purposes that must comply with strict rules on land use changes spelled out in the federal Wilderness Act and National Environmental Policy Act.
The roadless rule enacted under Clinton in 2001 had been upheld earlier by both the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit in separate cases.
The 10th Circuit overturned Cheyenne-based U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer who had decided the rule created a de facto wilderness area.
The years of legal wrangling led to a variation of the national rule in Colorado, which developed its own regulations for the state's 4.2 million acres of roadless areas. Its regulations, approved by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in July, are less stringent, allowing more flexibility to allow for the thinning of forests to help ski resort expansion and coal mining in the North Fork region.
Colorado Mining Association President Stuart Sanderson said the Supreme Court action is disappointing but limited development of coal in some Colorado national forest areas will continue.
"The mines in this region employ more than 1,000 workers, those jobs must be preserved," Sanderson said.
By BOB MOEN