Judge upholds forest roadless protections

SEATTLE — A court in Washington, D.C., has rejected the last legal challenge to prohibitions on logging and road-building in backcountry roadless areas, ending more than 12 years of fighting over one of the nation's signature wilderness protection policies.

The state of Alaska had challenged the rule adopted in 2001 by President Bill Clinton to preserve the last large tracts of untouched forest in states including Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Alaska and California — that still have not been opened to logging and other development.

U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon ruled Monday that Alaska's challenge in 2011 came too late under the statute of limitations to invalidate a policy that had already survived multiple lawsuits in courts across the country.

A separate challenge seeking to exempt 9.3 million acres of the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska is pending before a federal appeals court, but that case would not affect the bulk of the so-called "roadless rule" in effect across 58.5 million acres of the U.S.

"These are places that families go for hiking, camping, fishing, boating, hunting and all kinds of other recreational uses in the national forests," said Tom Waldo, who argued the case for the environmental law organization, Earthjustice, one of several groups that intervened.

Alaska has worried primarily about the rule's effect on the Tongass in southeast Alaska. The roadless rule would effectively prohibit logging on about 2 million acres of the Tongass' 9.3 million roadless acres that otherwise might be available.

The Bush administration had exempted that forest, but a federal court set aside the exemption. Alaska's appeal of that ruling is awaiting a decision from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Assistant state Attorney General Tom Lenhart said state officials argued that previous law prohibits the federal government from claiming new wilderness lands in Alaska. A separate law, he says, guarantees a reliable supply of timber to southeast Alaska mills. He said the state would decide whether to appeal the new ruling.

In February, Alaska's congressional delegation introduced legislation to repeal the roadless rule.

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