WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a case brought by the state of Alaska over the so-called Forest Service "roadless rule," ending a major long-running court battle over the state's attempts to be exempt from the logging regulation.
The state had asked the Supreme Court to consider reversing a lower-court decision that tossed Alaska's "exemption" from a regulation barring road-building in protected forest areas. While the high court's decision is a major setback for the state, a similar effort to overturn the rule is still brewing in another federal court.
The roadless rule originally went into effect in 2001, at the end of the Clinton administration. It barred the Forest Service from building roads and cutting timber on 58.5 million acres nationwide. In Southeast Alaska, it set aside 9.3 million acres of the 17 million-acre Tongass National Forest and nearly all of the 5.4 million-acre Chugach National Forest.
The state challenged the rule in court and settled with the Forest Service in 2003, when the George W. Bush administration agreed to craft an exemption for the Tongass National Forest.
But that exemption did not last.
The Tlingit Native Village of Kake and several environmental groups fought the Alaska carve-out and won -- in District Court in 2011, and then at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The courts ruled that while new administrations often have the legal right to make policy changes, the Bush administration didn't provide sufficient factual reasoning for coming to a different conclusion on Alaska forest protections.
The state brought the case to the Supreme Court, arguing that legal precedent says "different values and priorities are a legitimate reason for a new administration to change the policies of its predecessor."
But the federal government told the Supreme Court it shouldn't bother taking up the case, given a separate, ongoing lawsuit over the roadless rule and efforts since 2010 to revise the management plan for the Tongass National Forest.
That argument presumably won out, as the Supreme Court announced in an order released Monday that it would not hear Alaska's appeal.
Alaska assistant attorney general Cori Mills said Monday that though the Supreme Court denied the state's petition, "this is not the end of our challenge of the roadless rule and its application to Alaska."
The state still fears a negative impact on the local economy, Mills said.
"In Southeast Alaska, the roadless rule sets aside so much land from timber harvest and road construction in support of mineral development, power projects and geothermal development that the economy of Southeast is likely to suffer," Mills said.
Given the "sheer size and abundant roadless areas" in the Tongass, the forest's "uniquely wild nature can be preserved even if logging and road building -- key to the economic survival of isolated towns and villages scattered throughout the forest -- continue in some designated areas," the state told the Supreme Court last year.
The Ketchikan Gateway Borough in Southeast Alaska made similar arguments in a brief filed with the Supreme Court. The area's once-thriving timber industry has been in decline since the close of the Ketchikan Pulp Co. in 1997, and the borough argued that the roadless rule has exacerbated the area's fiscal problems.
The borough wants to see more growth of the timber industry, to support wood-based heating systems it has installed at Ketchikan International Airport and at a local high school. And the local government says limiting new roads means it cannot install more hydroelectric power or put new transmission lines on preferred routes.
And the city of Craig, roughly 100 air miles from Ketchikan, told the high court it is worried that the rule could drive the Viking Lumber Co. Mill out of business, which would mean job losses there.
Environmental groups, meanwhile, have argued that the federal government has already spent roughly $1 billion on forest roads, and that more clear-cutting in Tongass National Forest will only harm fishing and recreation industries.
Buck Lindekugel, attorney for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, said that logging in remote places, "with expensive new logging roads no one can afford to maintain, is a thing of the past," and he called on the state to "put this issue to rest."
Other conservation groups cheered the Supreme Court's decision Monday.
"Alaska's temperate rainforest is a treasure, and today's decision will help keep the Tongass protected from more logging and destruction," said Marc Fink, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.
"It feels terrific to put this case to bed once and for all," said Niel Lawrence, senior attorney and Alaska director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Not over yet
The attempt to overturn the 9th Circuit Court's ruling on the Alaska exemption ends with the Supreme Court's decision Monday. But the state is still pursuing a challenge to the roadless rule in another court, with an eye toward Alaska-specific issues.
The federal district court tossed that case in 2013, when a judge in Washington, D.C., said the lawsuit, brought by then-Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell, came far too late -- outside the usual six-year window for challenging regulations. But that decision was reversed when another court tossed the Alaska exemption, reinstating the original 2001 rule.
Parties to the district court case submitted briefs in the fall and are awaiting a ruling from Judge Richard Leon.
The state is "still hopeful that our additional challenge to the roadless rule that is now before the D.C. District Court will be successful," assistant attorney general Mills said.
"I don't think that case is going anywhere, but as long as it's alive," it is "theoretically possible" that the rule could be overturned, Lawrence said.
But "I think that's probably much ado about nothing," Lawrence said, noting that many of the state's objections to the rule have already been litigated elsewhere.
If the court did rule in favor of the state of Alaska, "I can assure you … that would be vigorously appealed by my clients," said Lawrence of the NRDC.
Meanwhile, the Forest Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is working on a new management plan for the Tongass that is expected to eliminate logging in roadless and old-growth areas.
That plan "is a result of (Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack) having said almost six years ago that it's time for the Forest Service to get out of the business of logging in roadless areas," Lawrence said. At that time, "the Tongass was still exempted from the roadless rule, under the Bush era exemption that the court today finished burying," Lawrence said.
The Justice Department told the Supreme Court last year that given the likely new management policies "that emphasize protecting roadless areas ... review of the court of appeals' decision would accomplish little."
In fact, the state participated in a federal advisory committee that weighed management options for the Tongass, along with timber and recreation industry representatives, as well as environmentalists. That committee unanimously recommended that there be no more logging in the forest's roadless areas.
Logging activity in the Tongass roadless areas "was incredibly controversial and conflict-laden," breeding "uncertainty as well as acrimony in the region," Lawrence said. The new management plan can "help the region to move forward on a much more stable and predictable and economically strong course," he said.
Either way, Lawrence noted, because of the sheer size of the Tongass, it already contains more developed areas than any other national forest -- about 1.5 million acres.