Court upholds Roadless Rule, protecting vital wildlife habitat
This week, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals secured a pivotal victory for wildlife, watershed, and forest conservation in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. The court ruled in favor of Defenders and a coalition of environmental groups in a case we brought to protect 9.3 million acres of wild forest in the Tongass. The court struck down the Bush Administration’s illegal attempt to exempt Alaska from the Forest Service’s Roadless Rule.
In 2001, the Clinton Administration created the Roadless Rule to protect all remaining areas within national forests that did not already have roads or significant human development. Over 56 million acres, one-third of all national forests, were designated by the Forest Service as roadless, including 9.3 million acres in the Tongass. These areas received special protection from logging, road-building, and other development. Around the country, roadless areas provided important wildlife habitat for at-risk species, protected watersheds from degradation, and conserved unique forest resources.
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But in 2003, the Bush Administration attempted to undo those protections for roadless areas. President Bush made a sweetheart deal with the State of Alaska to exempt the Tongass from the nationwide Roadless Rule. The Tongass Exemption put 9.3 million acres of Tongass wildlands back on the table for logging and unsustainable road-building.
Defenders and a coalition of environmental groups, along with Alaska Native villages, sued to overturn the Tongass Exemption and reinstate the Roadless Rule’s strict protections for Alaska’s public wildlands. After a series of lower court decisions, the Ninth Circuit agreed to hear the case en banc – before a panel of 11 judges – to settle the question of which rule applies to the Tongass. On Wednesday, a majority ruled in favor of reinstating the Roadless Rule’s protections for the Tongass. The court concluded that the Bush Administration had acted illegally when it created the Tongass Exemption because the agency ignored the overwhelming number of reasons driving the need for roadless area preservation.
The court’s ruling in favor of the Roadless Rule will provide strong and enduring protections for Tongass wildlands. Important species that rely on old growth rainforest habitat found within Tongass roadless areas, including the Alexander Archipelago wolf, Sitka black-tailed deer, Queen Charlotte goshawk, and flying squirrel will now have lasting protections in more than half of the country’s largest national forest. The wild headwaters of mountainous watersheds – spawning habitat for millions of salmon — and vast amounts of carbon stored in old growth trees will also be spared from the devastating effects of road-building and unsustainable logging in most of the Tongass.
While we celebrate this hard-fought and well-earned victory, our efforts to preserve roadless areas and protect important national forest habitat will continue. Defenders is currently working to stop an ill-conceived challenge to the Roadless Rule in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Because the Roadless Rule has already survived nearly identical challenges in the Ninth and Tenth Circuits, we feel confident that the D.C. Circuit will join with courts across the country in upholding the Roadless Rule. Defenders is also working to safeguard the Roadless Rule from members of Congress who want to hand over our public lands to special interests and undermine sound national forest policy with legislative riders. We will never stop working to ensure that our national forests provide the habitat necessary to sustain healthy populations of wildlife.