Judge Says Road Ban Applies to Oil and Gas Exploration in Forests
by Terence Chea (Associated Press)
SAN FRANCISCO - A federal judge ruled that a Clinton-era ban on road construction in national forests applies to hundreds of oil and gas leases sold by the Bush administration.
U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Laporte's ruling Wednesday means that holders of more than 300 leases that permit oil and gas exploration in national forests cannot build roads to access those areas.
Laporte's order follows her September ruling that reinstated the 2001 "Roadless Rule" that prohibits logging, mining and other development on 58.5 million acres of pristine wilderness in 38 states and Puerto Rico.
In that earlier ruling, Laporte said the Bush administration had failed to conduct necessary environmental studies before it replaced the rule in May 2005 with a process that required governors to petition the federal government to protect national forests in their states.
She sided with 20 environmental groups and four states - California, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington - that had sued the Forest Service over the changes.
On Wednesday, Laporte ruled in favor of the plaintiffs who argued that her ruling should apply to all actions taken since the Roadless Rule was issued in January 2001. The Bush administration had argued that it should only apply to actions taken after she reinstated the ruling in September.
The oil and gas leases cover more than 340,000 acres in seven Western states, including 179,000 in Utah, 87,000 in Colorado and 55,000 in North Dakota.
Hunting, fishing, hiking and conservation groups had opposed the sale of many of the leases, fearing they would open wilderness to road construction.
Laporte ruled that leaseholders cannot build roads in those areas, but did not rule out other ways to access the land.
Laporte also ruled that the Roadless Rule applies to the Coal Creek-Big Creek Road Project in Idaho, but left it up to the plaintiffs and defendants to decide whether the construction should go forward. The judge allowed logging to continue in two regions of Oregon - Mike's Gulch and Blackberry on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest - where timber sales were approved after the rule was changed.
Tim Preso, an attorney for the plaintiffs, called Wednesday's ruling "a victory for hunters, anglers, hikers, backpackers and anybody who wants to see their national forests wild instead of industrialized with roads for oil and gas development."
The Forest Service could not comment because administration lawyers were still reviewing the ruling, said spokesman Joe Walsh.
SOURCE: The Mercury News