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Ban on roadway construction in forest and grandlands reinstated

Ban on roadway construction in forest and grandlands reinstated

Late last week, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals reinforced an earlier decision by the 9th Circuit Court, in reestablishing a Bill Clinton-era ban on roadway construction on almost 60 million acres of forest and grassland in 38 states, including over one million acres in New Mexico. “It’s not a surprise but it is a welcome relief,” said Bryan Bird of WildEarth Guardians, the Santa Fe-based environmental-advocacy group. “We’ve always known the Clinton ruling was sound.”

Only days before he left the White House, President Clinton signed the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which placed a hold on roadways and commercial-timber harvesting in areas such as the national forests surrounding the Pecos Wilderness, along the Rio Chama River north of Española, and between Taos and Questa. The Rule allowed for controlled burning and other fire mitigation, and the reestablishment of Clinton’s rule also maintains such practices.

But in 2005, the Bush administration rescinded Clinton’s protective regulations, giving states authority over what to do with these wilderness areas. Attorneys general in several western states, though, including New Mexico, sued to reinstate Clinton’s Rule.

New Mexico Rep. Steve Pearce (R), cosponsor of HR 1581, the Wilderness and Roadless Area Release bill, which would effectively undo any manner of roadless designation, vowed to forge ahead legislatively. “A court ruling cannot kill the bill,” Pearce pointed out after the 10th Circuit’s ruling. Indeed, only Congress or the Supreme Court have that power. Both sides, though, seem to view the latter as an unlikely pursuit at this point.

“Representative Pearce doesn’t seem to understand that these areas are of far greater value undeveloped than they are developed,” said Bird. “Once you open up these pristine areas to development you jeopardize the watershed. They’re highly valuable to wildlife and for water.”

Pearce countered that HR 1581 would “allow more Americans to enjoy our federal lands and actually protect the habitats of wildlife through proper management.” It would also, he said, “return the ability of land managers to allow for responsible development and multiple uses.”

“This issue’s certainly not dead in the water but it provides a buffer until Congress designates these areas as wilderness areas,” said Bird. “We’re confident now that the Obama administration would not sign anything that’d weaken this ruling.”

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