The state of Wyoming wants to turn back the clock on a Clinton-era ban on logging and other development on millions of acres of federal forests nationwide.
The state this month asked a federal appeals court in Denver to resurrect a 2003 order from a Wyoming judge who ruled the Clinton ban was void because it violated federal environmental laws. Environmental groups oppose the state's request, saying it threatens public lands around the country.
The Clinton roadless rule has spawned lawsuits ever since it was enacted in the final days of the administration. It placed more than 50 million acres of federal land off-limits for new road construction and other development.
"The stakes are, of course, huge," Jim Angell, a Denver lawyer who represents the Wyoming Outdoor Council and other groups opposing the state's request, said Wednesday. "We're talking about perhaps 50 million acres of wild country in the lower 48, and whether they're going to enjoy continued protection that the vast majority of people have been in favor of.
"Wyoming is demanding an injunction go into place not only in Wyoming, but in lots of other states across the country, including the state where I live, where the governor and other people have said they want the roadless rule," Angell said.
In response to Wyoming's original lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer of Cheyenne ruled in 2003 that the Clinton rule was void. Environmental groups appealed that ruling to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.
The legal wrangling
The appeals court heard arguments on the matter, but before it issued a decision the Bush administration in 2005 enacted a rule of its own. The appeals court then ruled that the environmentalists' appeal of the Clinton rule was moot.
Late last year, however, a federal judge in California punted the Bush rule, putting the Clinton rule back in play.
Wyoming Attorney General Pat Crank early this month asked Brimmer to reinstate his injunction against the Clinton rule. While Brimmer ruled that he lacked authority to do that, he did express surprise that the California court reinstated the Clinton rule despite his earlier order that it was void.
Crank this month went back to the Denver appeals court and asked it to reconsider the Clinton rule and reinstate Brimmer's original, nationwide injunction against it.
"Recalling the mandate and reinstating the lower court decision will preserve the integrity of the judicial process and acknowledge the work done by the Wyoming District Court," Crank wrote.
Angell said the environmental groups don't oppose having the Denver court make a decision on Brimmer's ruling. But he said they do oppose the state's request to reinstate Brimmer's original injunction against the Clinton rule.
"We share the state's interest in a quick resolution of this," Angell said. "We've already been litigating this for six years now. We think it would be a waste of time to start over again with a new lawsuit in Wyoming."
However, Angell said his clients oppose Wyoming's request to reinstate Brimmer's injunction. He said there's already a federal injunction in place — telling the Forest Service that it should use the Clinton rule nationwide — from the California court that rejected the Bush Administration's roadless rule.
"That's something new, and the courts shouldn't engage in these sort of dueling injunctions," Angell said. He said that there are many projects pending on public lands around the country that could proceed and damage his clients' conservation interests if Brimmer's injunction goes back into effect.
"There's nothing that would happen in Wyoming, so Wyoming doesn't need that injunction for it's own interests," Angell said.
Temple Stevenson, natural resource policy adviser to Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, said Wednesday that the state wants to see forest planning returned to the local level.
"I think our ultimate goal is to return that decision to the forest plan level, where there's local decision-making capacity, where it's not a national decision delegated from Washington," Stevenson said.
Bill Crapser, Wyoming state forester, said Wednesday that the state believes the Clinton rule erroneously inflated the amount of land that was classified as roadless in the state.
Crapser said the Clinton roadless rule has had a negative effect on forest health and overall forest management in the state and has eroded public safety by increasing the potential for large wild fires.