U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Laporte reinstated the “Roadless Rule,” a Clinton-era ban on road construction in nearly a third of national forests. In her ruling she stated that the Bush administration failed to conduct necessary environmental studies before making changes that allowed states to decide how to manage individual national forests.

The Roadless Rule was originally designed to protect 58 million acres of roadless wild forests in 39 states. Today's decision reinstates the original Roadless Rule and finds that the Bush administration violated the law when it adopted their petition process. The ruling injoins the Forest Service from taking any action contrary to the Roadless Rule.

“Today marks a huge victory for America’s last remaining wild forests and the millions of Americans who have spoken out in support of protecting these special places for future generations. These are increasingly scarce unspoiled places that provide some of the highest quality fish and wildlife habitat, backcountry recreation and clean water supplies in the country,” Carl Pope, the Executive Director of The Sierra Club said. “Today’s ruling underscores the strong framework of the Roadless Rule, the basis of which was overwhelming scientific and economic evidence and public opinion in favor of protecting America’s last wild forests.”

According to the Court, “Defendants are enjoined from taking any further action contrary to the Roadless Rule without undertaking environmental analysis consistent with this opinion.” The Court noted that in adopting the Rule which the Court reinstated today, the Forest Service itself found that the Rule was “necessary to protect the social and ecological values and characteristics of… roadless areas from road construction…and timber harvesting activities… Adoption of (the Roadless Rule) ensures that inventoried roadless areas will be managed in a manner that sustains their values now and for future generations.”

The Court found that in repealing the roadless rule, the Bush administration failed to comply with basic legal requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act: “this Court concludes that the Forest Service failed adequately to consider the environmental and species impacts when it (repealed the Roadless Rule) in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.”

The Court continued: “to conclude that a regulation that effects a major change in the way roadless areas in national forests are regulated nationwide from the prior regulation that it replaces does not constitute a repeal with potentially significant environmental effects would ignore reality.”

Conservation groups, represented by a team of Earthjustice attorneys, brought the legal challenge to the Bush administration policies, joining parallel efforts by four states – California, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington – which brought a separate but similar challenge to the Bush administration plan.

“The sad fact is that the Bush administration gave a timber industry lobbyist a high White House appointment and put him in charge of reversing the government's policy to protect our last great roadless natural areas,” said Boyles of Earthjustice. “They made these changes in a flatly illegal way and the Court caught them.”

The 2005 Bush administration roadless repeal, adopted with no environmental analysis and limited public input, replaced a Clinton era rule adopted in January 2001 after a three-year process that included 600 public hearings and 1.6 million public comments. In addition to repealing the roadless rule, the Bush rule invited governors to submit petitions recommending management schemes for the national forests in their states. Five states (Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, New Mexico, California) have lodged such petitions, and all have called for protection for all roadless areas in their states. Other states, including Oregon and Colorado, are facing Bush administration plans to log or develop oil and gas in roadless areas.

Today's ruling doesn't address the roadless areas in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. In 2003, the Bush administration exempted the Tongass from the roadless rule in a separate procedure. The exemption made little sense then and even less now. About five million acres in the Chugach National Forest in Alaska are once again protected by today's ruling.