Producers facing legal quagmire over roadless rule

By OGJeditors

WASHINGTON, DC, Dec. 19 -- Producers looking to drill on certain public lands were dealt a legal setback when a San Francisco federal appeals court reinstated the Clinton administration's "roadless" rule that restricts logging and road building in about one-third of US national forests.

The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals panel in a 2-1 decision Dec. 12 ordered a federal judge in Idaho to lift his injunction blocking the rule. Environmental groups praised the court action.

"The . . . ruling reflects the wishes of the millions of Americans who participated in the most inclusive rulemaking in federal rulemaking history. More than 1.6 million comments were received and more than 600 public hearings were held throughout the country in the formulation of this landmark policy that protects 58.5 million acres of America's last wild forests from most logging and road building," said the Wilderness Society.

More debate expected
Yet, both supporters and opponents of the "roadless" regulation predict that policy-makers will be re-examining the issue over the next few years, both within and outside the judicial system.

The appellate court's ruling "does not mean that the fight for national forest roadless protection is over. To date, the Bush Administration has sought to undermine environmental protections for our national forests," Wilderness Society said.

Independent producers also expect further legal challenges on the issue. They noted that even though the new Congress is expected to encourage and endorse the White House's call to expand access to public lands, lawsuits threaten to restrict access to some oil-rich areas, especially in the Rocky Mountains.

A US Department of Energy-funded study in 2000 said an estimated (mean) 11.3 tcf of natural gas and 550 million bbl of oil could underlie inventoried roadless areas. The vast majority of those resources are in the Rocky Mountains where the rule would shut-in an estimated 9.4 tcf (OGJ Online, Apr. 4, 2001). An updated 2002 study of the Powder River basin found those numbers could be even higher (OGJ Online, Dec. 17, 2002).

Next steps
In May 2001, the Bush administration indicated states would be allowed to modify the rule to permit development, but legal challenges have made it difficult for states to exercise any authority.

Responding to the appellate court's decision, US Forest Service officials said they remain committed to "protecting and managing roadless values." But Bush administration officials also made clear that the environmental review process for some public forests should be streamlined to allow development.

A day before the court ruling, the White House unveiled a proposal to streamline environmental reviews. US officials predicted the new forest management rule would reduce resource management costs by 30%.

"These savings can be used to address critical areas, such as wildfire prevention, watershed restoration, and recreation facility maintenance," officials said. "The Forest Service wants to improve its planning processes to spend its available resources doing real work on the land and not disproportionately on planning and analysis."

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