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Forest ‘roadless rule’: Environmental victory or U.S. job-killer?

Critics see a Clinton-era executive rule protecting national forests from new roads — the ‘roadless rule’ — as a job-killing block on access to the country’s natural resources.

Environmentalists on Saturday hailed as one of the biggest conservation victories in decades a federal court ruling that upheld a “roadless rule” to protect massive swaths of national forest.

But while the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday removed a lower court’s block of the “roadless rule,” the Clinton-era order protecting more than 50 million acres of prime federal forests from timber and mining companies could leave President Obama vulnerable to charges similar to those levied against the White House after the Gulf drilling moratorium: that the administration is unfriendly toward extractive industries that utilize the nation’s natural wealth and create American jobs.

The strong 10th Circuit ruling may be the final court decision on a matter that has now touched three presidential administrations. While the “roadless rule” has stirred up a range of controversial issues — states’ rights, executive privilege, and wildfire risks among them — the central question likely to be posed to the Obama White House is how it fits into attempts to get the American economy rolling again. The Obama administration said Friday it will enforce the rule.

“Obama may be reluctant [to embrace the ruling] at a time when he faces a tough reelection battle and Republicans are eager to accuse him of favoring environmental restrictions that hinder the nation’s economic recovery,” writes the editorial board of the Register-Guard newspaper, in Eugene, Oregon. “But he should remember Americans … expect their federal government to honor their wishes to protect roadless areas for future generations.”

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The ruling Friday struck down a 2008 Wyoming court ruling that had blocked implementation of the rule. In 2009, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a 2005 change to the rule by the Bush administration that weakened the order by allowing states to rewrite the rules.

Only two states — Idaho and Colorado — chose to push forward with their own plans as the courts continued to mull a case that turned largely on the question of whether the president can designate national wilderness areas or whether it takes an act of Congress to do so.

Given the ruling, eyes are now likely to turn to a Republican-sponsored bill in the House that aims to gut the “roadless rule.” Even if unsuccessful, such a bill could force Democrats to defend a rule that conservatives argue is antithetical to a strong economy.

The stakes have been most evident in Colorado, where critics of a federal forest road ban say it fails to take into account local environmental and business dynamics.

Since former president Bill Clinton signed the rule shortly before leaving office, Colorado has lost nearly 2 million acres of trees to a bark-beetle infestation, leaving nearby areas vulnerable to wildfires if new roads can’t be cut. Federal enforcement of the rule means “management agencies will be hamstrung from providing much needed access to manage these lands in a safe and responsible manner,” U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton (R) of Colorado told the Colorado Independent in August.

Environmentalist Tom Turner, who wrote a book called “Roadless Rules” about the Clinton rule, credited “tenacious lawyering” by environmental groups for a ruling that “looks very good for the forests.”

The ruling, however, reflects a lack of practical understanding of land use, and is bad news for American energy independence and job creation, argued the Colorado Mining Association in a statement Friday.

Patrik Jonsson is a Christian Science Monitor staff writer.