Roadless areas in the U.S.National Forest System (NFS) have received special attention for decades. Many want to protect their relatively pristine condition; others want to use the areas in more developed ways.
Two different roadless area policies have been offered in the last decade. On January 12, 2001, the Clinton Administration’s roadless area policy established a nationwide approach to managing roadless areas in the National Forest System to protect their pristine conditions. The Nationwide Rule, as it will be called in this report, generally prohibited road construction and reconstruction and timber harvesting in 58.5 million acres of inventoried roadless areas, with significant exceptions. The Bush Administration initially postponed the effective date of the Nationwide Rule, then issued its own rule that allowed states to plan how roadless areas were managed. It issued a new rule on May 13, 2005. The State Petition Rule allowed governors to petition the Secretary of Agriculture for a special rule for managing the inventoried roadless areas in their states.
Both rules were heavily litigated, with the Ninth Circuit ultimately holding that the Nationwide Rule should be in place, and the Tenth Circuit still considering an appeal as to whether that rule is valid. The first action halted implementation of the Nationwide Rule in 2001, but was reversed by the Ninth Circuit. In 2003, the federal District Court for Wyoming enjoined implementation of the Nationwide Rule. This holding was dismissed as moot by the Tenth Circuit in light of the 2005 State Petition Rule. In 2006, a federal court in California enjoined the State Petition Rule, and held that the Nationwide Rule applied until the Forest Service complied with the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act. Instead, the Forest Service allowed governors to petition for a roadless area management rule for their states under the Administrative Procedure Act. Idaho and Colorado filed petitions under this process. The Idaho petition was approved in October 2008, and upheld by a federal court in 2011. Colorado filed and then twice amended its petition. A proposed rule for Colorado roadless areas was issued on April 15, 2011, with the Forest Service proposing more than twice as many acres to be protected at the highest level—from 257,000 acres in the state’s petition to 562,200 acres in the proposed rule.
In the meantime, a new lawsuit in Wyoming led to a second injunction of the Nationwide Rule by that district court. In August 2009, the Ninth Circuit upheld the California district court ruling that the State Petition Rule was invalid and that the Nationwide Rule should be in place nationwide. The appeal of the Wyoming injunction, pending in the Tenth Circuit, could lead to a conflict between the circuits, potentially creating an issue for the U.S. Supreme Court or Congress, unless the Forest Service initiates a new rule.
Following the Ninth Circuit decision, the Secretary of Agriculture reserved decisions related to timber harvesting and road construction in roadless areas to the Secretary. Much of that authority was subsequently delegated to the Chief of the Forest Service.
The Tongass National Forest has taken its own route. At first it was included in the Nationwide Rule, but then was temporarily exempted from the rule. That temporary exemption seemed moot when the State Petition Rule came into effect, but after the Ninth Circuit ruling that the Nationwide Rule applied, it was unclear whether the Tongass was still exempt. In March 2011, a federal court ruled it was not, and that the roadless areas in the Tongass National Forest were covered under the Nationwide Rule.
This summary was taken from the Congressional Research Service Report RL30647 by Kristina Alexander and Ross W. Gorte