The unlikely success of the Clinton Roadless Rule |

The unlikely success of the Clinton Roadless Rule

Rob Inglis
Writers on the Range

The Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which Bill Clinton signed into law eight days before he left office, protected 58.5 million acres of national forest land from logging and energy development. It was a bold move, but it seemed doomed to a short lifespan. An administrative rule can be readily overturned, which is exactly what the Bush administration tried to do.

But nearly eight years later, the Clinton Roadless Rule remains in effect for 35.6 million acres of national forest in seven Western states. Idaho has adopted, and Colorado is about to adopt, state-specific roadless regulations. They fall far short of the Clinton rule but still provide limited protection for large swaths of land.

The contentious issue has a long history. The Forest Service first inventoried its roadless areas in the 1970s, after the 1964 Wilderness Act directed it to determine which of its lands were eligible for wilderness protection. Some of this land was preserved in a piecemeal fashion, through state-specific bills. But much stayed unprotected. The goal of the Clinton Roadless Rule was to systematically protect these remaining road-free lands without going through the arduous wilderness-designation process. More than 1.5 million people commented on the proposed rule, and over 95 percent of them were in favor.

The Bush administration at first thought it could get rid of the rule quietly, simply by not defending it against lawsuits from timber companies. It wasn’t until 2005 that the administration launched a frontal assault, issuing a weaker replacement rule that required governors to petition the Forest Service to protect their states’ roadless land. But the administration had done only a cursory environmental assessment of the new rule, leaving it vulnerable to legal challenge.

In 2006, 9th Circuit District Court Judge Elizabeth LaPorte ruled that the administration had violated the National Environmental Policy Act in establishing the new rule. She overturned it and reinstated the original Roadless Rule. Her reinstatement stood until August 2008, when 10th Circuit District Court Judge Clarence Brimmer issued an injunction against the 2001 rule, saying, as he had in a previous injunction, that it also violated environmental law.

This left the nation’s roadless areas in a curious legal position, with one judge saying that the 2001 rule was the law of the land and another judge of equal rank, but in a different judicial circuit, saying that it wasn’t. To ease this tension, Judge LaPorte has reduced the scope of her 2006 decision, limiting it to the 9th Circuit plus New Mexico until a randomly selected panel of three appeals judges rules on the validity of her decision. The three judges are all Republican appointees — two of them appointed by George W. Bush — so they may well reverse LaPorte’s decision and reinstate the Bush rule. Even if LaPorte’s 2006 decision withstands the appeal, Judge Brimmer’s latest decision ” which is currently being appealed to the 10th Circuit ” could still undo the Roadless Rule.

Meanwhile, while lawyers argue, the Clinton Roadless Rule has effectively protected the nation’s roadless areas: Only seven miles of new roads have been constructed there during the past eight years.

“The Bush administration has basically blown it,” says Craig Allin, professor of political science at Cornell College. “They have spent eight years trying to abolish the rule, and they have been so incompetent in their efforts that it’s going to be left for the next administration.”

Obama, who has expressed support for roadless preservation, could craft another administrative rule protecting all or most of the nation’s roadless areas. The more difficult — but more permanent — way to protect roadless lands is through legislation. Even with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, however, any bill would have to deal with the threat of filibuster.

If such a bill does pass, the Clinton Roadless Rule will be remembered not just for buying time but also for changing the terms of the roadless debate.

“It’s completely changed the context of how we talk about these undeveloped areas,” says Franz Matzner of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Ten years ago, these places were just the places we were going to log next. Now, if someone wants to log a roadless area, they’ve got a fight on their hands, and they know it. People are recognizing that their forests have more to offer than just board feet.”

Rob Inglis is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He writes in Paonia, Colorado.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

As a Summit Daily News reader, you make our work possible.

Now more than ever, your financial support is critical to help us keep our communities informed. Every contribution, no matter the size, will make a difference.

Your donation will be used exclusively to support quality, local journalism.