The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver will hear arguments in a roadless court case March 10, 9 a.m. in the Byron White U.S. Courthouse, Courtroom 1, 1823 Stout Street
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — The long-running battle over management of 58 million acres of roadless national forest lands is headed for a showdown in Denver this week with a hearing before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Sometime after the hearing, the appeals court will decide whether the hotly contested 2001 national roadless rule will stand as law of the land.
Summit County encompasses about 60,000 acres of national forest roadless lands. County officials took a detailed look at the areas in 2005 and 2006. The county commissioners formally offered support for protection of the areas. In a few cases, the county even suggested adding acreage. At the same time, they pointed out the need for fuels reduction work in some of the roadless areas adjacent to local neighborhoods.
The Lower Blue Basin, for example, includes 19,927 acres of inventoried roadless acres scattered across 12 parcels ranging in size from 631 to 6,683 acres, including several identified as having wilderness potential.
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals hearing is over an appeal of a 2008 federal court ruling, when U.S. District Court Judge Clarence Brimmer enjoined the 2001 national Forest Service rule that prohibited new road-building across vast tracts of federal lands.
Questions to be addressed during the hearing:
— Did the Forest Service violate federal environmental laws when it adopted the original 2001 rule?
— Did the 1964 Wilderness Act eliminate the Forest Service’s regulatory authority to disallow most roadbuilding and logging on national forest areas that are not formally designated wilderness?
— Did the federal district court in Wyoming abused its discretion when it struck down the roadless rule in 2008 and prohibited its enforcement anywhere in the United States?
The roadless rule has been at the heart of a see-saw legal battle since it was adopted in 2001. It was produced by one of the most comprehensive rule-making procedures in the nation’s history. More than 1.5 million public comments came in, most of them favoring strong protection for roadless areas. The Forest Service held scores of open house meetings and public hearings and conducted a detailed environmental study.
The Forest Service promulgated and adopted the rule on the premise that the agency couldn’t adequately maintain its existing road network. Former Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck said roadless areas are important buffers against invasive species, and that they provide clean water and critical habitat for rare and endangered species, including California condors, grizzly bears and wolves of the Yellowstone area, native salmon and trout in the Pacific Northwest and migratory songbirds in Appalachian hardwood forests.
Several states challenged the roadless rule in court. The Bush administration decided it wouldn’t defend the rule and repealed it in 2005. It was replaced with a state-by-state petition process, subject to subsequent Forest Service approval.
Colorado was one of the states choosing the petition process, but the state versions may end up being meaningless depending on how the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rules after Wednesday’s hearing.
In 2006, the state-by-state version of the rule was declared illegal by a federal district court in California, which ruled that the Bush administration failed to comply with basic legal requirements for environmental studies, review and public input, as well as the Endangered Species Act.
The original 2001 rule was immediately attack by logging and resource-extraction interests. In 2008, Brimmer ruled that the Forest Service process violated federal environmental law when it adopted the rule.
That means there are two contradictory legal opinions currently in effect, resulting in no end of headaches for Forest Service rangers.
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling will clarify whether the 2001 rule becomes the law of the land.