FORESTS:

Alaska files legal challenge to U.S. roadless rule

A nationwide rule prohibiting most road building on 58 million acres of national forests is illegally restricting timber supplies, new mining jobs and development in Alaska, according to a legal complaint filed by the state late Friday in federal district court.

Alaska said the Clinton administration's roadless rule violates several federal statutes, including the Wilderness Act and a 30-year-old lands bill that it argues prohibits the Forest Service from imposing new restrictions on public lands in the state.

"Applying the roadless rule to national forest lands in Alaska diminishes jobs and hurts families, and removes local and regional management of the forests from the state, communities, residents and foresters," said Gov. Sean Parnell (R) in a statement. "A one-size-fits-all forest mandate from Washington, D.C., is the wrong approach."

Parnell said the Obama administration's support of the 2001 roadless rule will further restrict timber supply, new mining jobs and development in the Tongass National Forest, the nation's largest, while imposing higher energy costs on area communities. The rule would increase costs for developing hydroelectric projects by barring roads along transmission lines for construction and maintenance, with costs passed along to consumers, the state said.

Alaska also on Friday filed an appeal with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco challenging an Anchorage district court's decision this spring to invalidate the George W. Bush administration's decision to exempt the Tongass from the national roadless rule.

U.S. District Judge John Sedwick in March said the Bush administration's reasoning was "implausible" and failed to show that roadless protections threatened jobs and would prevent communities from developing road and utility connections (E&ENews PM, March 7).

Alaska argued that the Forest Service provided adequate consideration during its exemption decision, which was the result of a 2003 legal settlement with the state.

Sedwick's decision drew sharp rebuke from Alaska's congressional delegation, which threatened to craft a legislative fix if the courts could not guarantee economic development opportunities for timber-dependent communities in southeast Alaska.

In the state's 37-page complaint to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Alaska Attorney General John Burns argues the roadless rule violates the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the Tongass Timber Reform Act, the Wilderness Act, the National Forest Management Act, the National Environment Policy Act, the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act, the Organic Administration Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.

The state argues that the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, or ANILCA, gives Congress the exclusive right to determine which additional lands will be withdrawn from multiple use to protect wilderness qualities, an argument conservation groups dispute.

"The roadless decision does not explain why defendants are not subject to the finding by Congress in ANILCA that the proper balance between development and protection has been realized within Alaska and therefore administrative agencies may not withdrawal additional land for protection without the consent of Congress," the complaint reads.

A spokesman for the Forest Service declined to comment.

The lawsuit comes as the roadless rule faces a separate legal challenge from Wyoming under review in the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where a decision could come any day.

The Forest Service, citing a separate 9th Circuit decision in 2009 upholding the roadless rule, said earlier this month that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will maintain sole discretion over which logging or road projects are exempt from roadless protections (Greenwire, June 1).

"As we await a ruling ... I will continue to work with the U.S. Forest Service to ensure we protect roadless areas on our national forests," Vilsack said in a statement at the time. "Renewing this interim directive for a third year reflects this administration's commitment to conserve our forests by ensuring that projects in roadless areas receive a higher level of scrutiny by this department."

Click here to read Alaska's complaint.