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Roadless areas get protection – for now

A federal judge has blocked the Bush administration from allowing development on 50 million acres of backcountry.

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Six years after the Bush administration came to office seeking to reverse Bill Clinton's order for protecting roadless areas on federal lands, the issue continues to smolder.

A federal judge has blocked the administration from lifting protections on nearly 50 million acres of backcountry. Several governors are suing Uncle Sam over the issue. And other governors are pushing ahead with their own plans to balance environmental protection with mining, logging, oil and gas development, and other commercial uses.

At stake are vast areas of federal land, most of it forested tracts across the Ameri-can West where the sound of road-building bulldozers has never been heard. Environmentalists say such areas are valuable for wildlife habitat, preserving water and air quality, and providing a wildernesslike experience. Many hunters and fishermen want them kept pristine as well.

But many areas also are potential sources of timber, minerals, gas, and oil. Developing such natural resources can be done in a way that protects the environment, administration and industry officials assert.

Like many environmental issues, sorting out this one has involved lengthy lawsuits.

In September, US Magistrate Elizabeth Laporte in San Francisco ruled that the Bush administration's repeal of the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, as the Clinton order is called, violates both the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

In another opinion last week, Judge Laporte blocked plans to extract natural resources in roadless areas, including some 300 controversial oil and gas leases in seven western states the US Forest Service issued in recent years.

Administration officials made "a clear error of judgment" in attempting to open up roadless areas without the proper environmental assessments, Laporte ruled.

The administration had sought to require governors to petition Washington if they wanted to protect federal roadless land in their states. Laporte ruled that illegal as well. But not before governors in Virginia, North and South Carolina, New Mexico, and California had petitioned the federal government for full protection of roadless areas in their states.

Meanwhile, governors in other states – Idaho, Colorado, and Utah among them – want to lift or ease some of the restrictions imposed by the Clinton rule.


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