msnbc.com news services
updated 9/20/2006 5:54:28 PM ET 2006-09-20T21:54:28

A federal judge on Wednesday reinstated a ban on road construction in nearly a third of national forests, overturning a Bush administration rule that allowed states to decide how to manage individual forests.

U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Laporte sided with states and environmental groups that sued the U.S. Forest Service after it reversed President Clinton's 2001 "Roadless Rule" that prohibited logging, mining and other development on 58.5 million acres in 38 states and Puerto Rico.

In May last year, the Bush administration replaced the Clinton rule with a process that required governors to petition the federal government to protect national forests in their states.

Laporte said the process violated federal law because it didn't require necessary environmental studies.

Dave Tenny, deputy undersecretary of agriculture for natural resources and environment, defended the Bush administration policy, under which states must petition to protect roadless areas.

"Obviously we don't agree with the court decision," Tenny said by telephone. "We had embarked on an effort to work with individual states to provide roadless area protection. ... We've had great success with that."

Tenny said five states -- Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, California and Idaho -- had asked for that protection, and Colorado was expected to do so soon. He added the administration was considering its legal options.

The plaintiffs, including 20 environmental groups and California, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington, were pleased with Laporte's ruling.

"This is fantastic news for millions of Americans who have consistently told the forest service that they wanted these last wild areas of public land protected," said Kristen Boyles, an attorney for Earthjustice, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit in October 2005.

Laporte's ruling does not affect about 9.3 million acres of Alaska's Tongass National Forest, which is covered by a separate rule on road construction and other development.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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