updated 8/13/2009 6:57:48 PM ET 2009-08-13T22:57:48

The Obama administration says it will defend a 2001 rule imposed by President Bill Clinton that blocked road construction and other development on tens of millions of acres of remote national forests.

The administration's decision was contained in court papers filed Thursday in a case in Wyoming that could help settle the fate of remote federal forests. The administration is siding with environmentalists in the case.

Conflicting court opinions have variously upheld and blocked the so-called Roadless Rule, which prohibited commercial logging, mining and other development on about 58 million acres of national forest in 38 states and Puerto Rico. A subsequent Bush administration rule had cleared the way for more commercial activity there.

A spokesman for the Justice Department said the appeal notice, filed in U.S. District Court in Wyoming, meets a Friday deadline to preserve the government's right to pursue the appeal.

The administration has not made a final decision on whether it will appeal the case, he said.

A federal appeals court threw out the 2005 Bush roadless rule last week, saying the rule "had the effect of permanently repealing uniform, nationwide, substantive protections that were afforded to inventoried roadless areas" in national forests.

The California-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the 2001 rule offered greater protection to remote forests than the 2005 rule.

The Aug. 5 ruling, one of dozens in recent years related to roadless forests, was not the final word on the issue.

The Wyoming case is pending in the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where environmental groups are appealing a ruling by a federal judge repealing the Clinton roadless rule. Arguments are expected this fall before an appeals panel in Denver.

Environmentalists called the Obama administration's decision to defend the Clinton-era rule a major step toward resolving the roadless issue in their favor.

"We are grateful that the Obama administration is upholding and honoring the commitment of the president to uphold and enforce the 2001 roadless rule," said Kristen Boyles, a lawyer for the environmental group Earthjustice, which represents a coalition of environmental groups in both appeals. Obama had said during the presidential campaign that he supports roadless values.

The latest filing "shows that the Obama administration is going to stand behind the need for nationwide roadless protection," Boyles said.

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