Appeals court hears arguments on forest roads rule
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
DENVER – Lawyers for the state of Wyoming and the Colorado Mining Association argued before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Wednesday that a 2001 federal rule banning construction of new roads on National Forest land violates the law.
The Roadless Rule, initiated under President Clinton’s presidency, banned road construction and reconstruction on certain areas of National Forest lands. It affects at least 40 million acres of federal land nationwide.
The appeals court did not indicate when it would decide the case, which was filed by Wyoming to challenge the rule.
Wyoming and the Colorado Mining Association argue the rule violates the 1964 Wilderness Act, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture did not follow National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, regulations.
Wyoming attorneys argue the definition of roadless lands is synonymous with wilderness lands. The 1964 Wilderness Act states only Congress can designate wilderness lands.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and environmental groups said there are differences between the designations – that roadless areas allow for some mineral development and more recreational activities, such as bicycles and ATVs, which the wilderness category forbids.
USDA and the groups said the rule is legal and NEPA regulations were followed. An environmental impact statement was completed and the public comment period was sufficient, they said.
More than 1 million comments were received, and the comment period lasted 69 days. NEPA requires a minimum of 45 days, but Wyoming Senior Assistant Attorney General James Kaste said comments periods usually last years longer.
Kaste said Wednesday that the USDA shortened the comment period because it was rushing the plan through before the end of the Clinton administration.
Conflicting federal court rulings have upheld and overturned the road-building ban. The California-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in August threw out a 2005 Bush administration policy that opened some of the roadless areas to potential development.
The Obama administration has said it will defend the 2001 rule and in May reinstated most of the policy. It also ordered a one-year moratorium on development of roadless areas.
In the interim, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was given sole decision-making authority over proposed forest management or road construction projects in roadless areas.
Some states are currently pursuing their own state roadless laws.
Colorado has started developing its roadless plan, similar to the 2001 policy. Alaska and Idaho have developed their own roadless rules, in line with the 2005 Bush policy, giving states more control over road-building in remote forests.
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The state transportation department’s $2.6 million plan to rebuild the roundabout west of Aspen next summer and fall appears to be moving along on schedule based on two votes in the Upper Roaring Fork Valley last week.