For more than 11 years, the Roadless Area Conservation Rule has been in political and judicial limbo as different presidential administrations and state governors have given their take on the rule designed to prevent development on 58.5 million acres of roadless forests across the United States. With Monday’s rejection of an appeal challenging the rule, the U.S. Supreme Court has nearly settled the issue once and for all. It is high time.
The court’s rejection of the appeal of a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in 2011 affirming the rule, leaves just one more appeal – filed by the state of Alaska – pending. Observers believe that Monday’s decision does not bode well for that challenge, which is awaiting action in federal court in Washington D.C. After countless appeals, some states – including Colorado – coming up with their own roadless forest rules, and more than a decade of discussion, it is time to put the issue to rest.
The measure was finalized in the waning days of the Clinton administration after the U.S. Forest Service collected millions of public comments about the proposed rule that was crafted during three years of careful study. The public response was overwhelmingly supportive of the rule that would keep development off inventoried roadless forest areas so as to protect habitat, wildlife, watersheds and other critical values. Upon taking office, President George W. Bush reversed the rule, setting off a series of lawsuits and policymaking processes to generate a substitution for the rule.
In Colorado, that process resulted in a state-specific rule finalized in July by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. The Colorado rule has many of the same protections as the national measure, but with some exceptions for wildfire prevention in forests near communities, access for coal-mining operations near Paonia and ski area expansions. These exemptions are not beloved by conservation groups in the state or nationally, but those supporting the Colorado rule argue that it offers increased protection for 4.2 million acres of roadless forests in the state over what would exist without such a rule. Both sides have decent points.
Ultimately, though, it is past time for this issue to be settled, and for Colorado, it was even before Monday’s Supreme Court action. In the remaining 50-some million acres of roadless forests in the United States, some modicum of certainty about how they will be managed is welcome.
The Roadless Area Conservation Rule was well-conceived, crafted carefully, vetted thoroughly and selected properly. For that sound adventure through the policy process, the rule has been rewarded with seemingly endless pushback at the administrative and judicial levels. With those matters nearly settled, the rule can finally move on to its next step in the journey: full implementation.
Those opposed to the rule, or wanting more from it or its state-level spin-offs will be best served by turning their attention to how that takes place. Let the fight end at the rule level.