Thursday, December 4, 2008

Disorder in the Courts, Devastation in the Forest

I've been writing about Bill Clinton's roadless rule since it was approved nearly 8 years ago, as one of his last actions in office. But even I've lost track of how many related court cases are going, and how many often contradictory court rulings have been made, in this seemingly endless, seemingly unresolvable, controversy.

We just had court ruling 10 or 11, I think. And this one -- like the rulings before it -- resolves nothing and only deepens the confusion. I defy readers to make sense of the situation, as described by the AP:

"SAN FRANCISCO — A federal magistrate judge on Tuesday scaled back a 2006 decision that reinstated a Clinton-era ban against new road construction and development on millions of acres of national forest.

Two years ago, Judge Elizabeth Laporte in San Francisco invalidated a 2005 Bush administration rule that overturned the 2001 "Roadless Rule," which protected 58.5 million acres of federal land in about 40 states. But in August, a federal judge in Wyoming invalidated President Clinton's Roadless Rule, prompting the Bush administration to request that the two judges modify their conflicting rulings.

In response, Laporte on Tuesday reduced the geographic scope of her 2006 ruling, so that the road construction ban would apply only to national forests in 10 western states. The ban doesn't apply to national forests in states such as Colorado and Wyoming, because those states are in the district overseen by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, rather than the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Laporte's move is only a temporary fix. Federal appeals courts in San Francisco and Denver both are expected to rule on the case next year, and road construction rules also could change under President-elect Barack Obama's incoming administration."

The reporter does his best, but doesn't (and can't) do justice to the complexity of the situation, which would require a book, rather than a wire story, to fully explain (any literary agents out there interested in such a book, please drop me a line). Here one gets a Reader's Digest Condensation of a scorched-earth, take-no-prisoners public lands battle that demonstrates, I would hope, the impossibility of having any coherent public lands policy when every decision is hashed-out (and turned into hash) in court. It shows, as well, that such conflicts ultimately get us nowhere, whether we support the roadless concept or not.

I do not support it.

Clinton's actions constituted a typically slick attempt to overturn multiple-use management on 60 million acres of national forest, and turn those acres into de-facto wilderness areas, without going through Congress. That dishonesty -- that unwillingness to say what the real agenda was, while using euphemisms like "roadless areas" as obfuscations -- still angers me, as it angers many in the West.

But the Clintonistas and gang green, rather than admit that they were trying to pull a fast one, and retreat when they were caught with their hands in the cookie jar, have been trying ever since to legitimize the illegitimate, and to secure their ill-gotten trophy. They know they would lose in the court of public opinion, and probably in Congress, if these roadless areas were proposed as wilderness areas. The public understands that this means severe access restrictions and the throwing out of multiple use. So the exclusionists try to win from judges what they can't get from Congress. Chaos and confusion have been the result.

And roadless advocates are kidding themselves if they imagine that the Obama administration is going to settle the matter, once and for all, in their favor. Now that the matter is tangled up in the courts, it will stay in the courts. Even the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-benevolent Obama can't override the federal judiciary. And the other side has access to the courts as well.

The roadless push was also terribly ill-timed, since the wildfire threat and forest health crisis (which already was apparent when Clinton left office), if we're going to combat them, will require more access to the forests, not less. But this all circles back to a fundamental disagreement (already touched on in my earlier post about Terry Barton and Smokey Bear) between those who want the forests left to themselves, with man and his management techniques subtracted from the equation, and those, like me, who believe that we can responsibly manage the forests for multiple uses, balancing economic and ecological values, and be a force for good, as well as for ill.

We've been chasing our tails in circles now for 8 years, while the forest health crisis -- a crisis that demands decisive action, not paralysis -- deepens around us.

The full impact of that crisis, and the economic devastation it will bring to Colorado and the American West, will be clear to anyone who takes the shortcut between Breckenridge and Keystone ski resorts, as I did last weekend. Once green forests are a sickly mustard brown. It's now obvious to the untrained eye that all these trees are dead or dying. It's only a matter of time before the brown needles are shed and the skeletons start blowing over, littering the landscape and blocking (and perhaps closing) the road -- if they don't go up like a torch first. A moonscape will follow, destroying the views from the million dollar homes nearby and driving many winter visitors to more bucolic settings.

Riding the chairs at Keystone, on a very windy day, I worried that the brown giants nearest the lift line could snap and fall, bringing disaster. It was frightening and depressing. And it's happening everywhere in Colorado, and in many Western states.

Yet the vocational activists who profess to love the forests most -- the tree hugging industry -- stand mute and passive in the face of the devastation, creating chaos and paralysis by playing their usual games in court and blaming a man-made crisis on natural causes or climate change. And worse, they want to severely restrict access to a third of these forests, impeding any possible response, through their roadless agenda.

But perhaps roadless areas serve a secondary purpose for gang green now. This way, fewer Americans will be able to venture far enough onto the "public" lands to see the destruction all this pointless conflict, all this costly litigation, all this paralysis, all this stupidity has wrought. They'll be able to hide this scandal, and their culpability in it, from the public eye.

Out of sight, out of mind. Right?

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