The Supreme Court has turned away an appeal challenging a Clinton-era rule that prohibits road development on about one-third of all National Forest System lands. The Final Rule has some limited impact within the bounds of Penn’s Woods –25,000 of the 513,000 acres that comprise Allegheny National Forest are inventoried roadless areas that will be protected from further road construction.
The Forest Service published the Rule on January 12, 2001, establishing prohibitions on road construction, road reconstruction, and timber harvesting on 58.5 million acres of inventoried areas of National Forest System lands that are currently roadless (the Forest Service manages more than 190 million acres of land). The intent of the Rule is to provide lasting protection for inventoried roadless areas. Inventoried roadless areas provide clean drinking water and function as biological strongholds for populations of threatened and endangered species. They also provide opportunities for dispersed outdoor recreation, which continue to diminish as open space and natural settings are developed around these areas. The inventoried roadless areas comprise only 2 percent of the land base in the continental United States but are found within 661 of the over 2,000 major watersheds in the nation and provide many social and ecological benefits.
The state of Wyoming and the Colorado Mining Association filed suit challenging the Final Rule in the United States District Court in Wyoming. The District Court struck down the Rule, accepting arguments made by those opposed to the protections that the National Forest Service had improperly exercised powers reserved to Congress under the 1964 Wilderness Act by using the roadless rule to effectively turn National Forest lands into de facto wilderness areas.
On October 21, 2011, the US Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit overturned the District Court’s ruling, finding that there was a distinct and meaningful difference between the uses to which public land could be put as wilderness areas compared with inventoried roadless areas. The 10th Circuit recognized that roadless areas allow many more activities than do wilderness areas, such as the use of motorized vehicles in roadless areas that is not allowed in wilderness areas. Based on those distinctions, the Circuit Court concluded that the roadless area protections were a proper exercise of the Forest Service’s authority to manage the National Forest system, and not an infringement on Congressional power under the 1964 Wilderness Act.
Yesterday, the US Supreme Court, in a summary order (meaning without an opinion), rejected the attempts of the Mining Association and others to have it review the 10th Circuit Court decision, which will now stand, ensuring the continued protection of inventoried roadless areas of National Forest System lands for the foreseeable future.