A federal appeals court -- responding to a challenge filed by a coalition of conservation groups to a decision by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to allow construction of a natural gas pipeline in western Colorado -- has issued a temporary injunction to halt the pipeline's construction until a Wednesday (June 18) hearing.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to decide following that hearing if the injunction should stay in place until the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado in Denver can rule on the coalition's lawsuit.
When the coalition filed the lawsuit two months ago it said the BLM decision had violated the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule (RACR) and could open millions of forested acres to development (see NGI, March 10). In the lawsuit the conservation groups challenged the federal regulators' authorization in January of the 25.5-mile Bull Mountain Pipeline in western Colorado, contending that construction of the pipeline would include a 100-foot-wide "construction corridor" for use by heavy trucks and equipment in violation of the RACR. In the Bull Mountain decision the Forest Service and BLM said the "construction corridor" was not a road and therefore could be built without violating the RACR, according to Earthjustice attorney Robin Cooley, who is representing the coalition in the case.
"A road, is a road, is a road -- no matter what the government calls it. And roads are illegal in roadless areas," Cooley said.
To protect Forest Service roadless areas and restrict great swaths of land from development the Clinton administration enacted the RACR, which created de facto wilderness by prohibiting road building, logging and other development activities -- such as oil and natural gas drilling -- on about one-third of Forest Service lands. The rule was enacted in 66 Code of Federal Regulations 3244 in early 2001.
In 2005 the Bush administration finalized the RACR, adding language that allowed individual states to petition the Forest Service regarding the nature of development to occur on inventoried roadless areas, a necessary prerequisite for energy development and other commercial activities. That move faced a barrage of legal challenges. In response to one lawsuit filed by four states and about 20 groups, a federal judge in San Francisco in 2006 voided the Bush administration's petition process and restored the Clinton-era RACR (see NGI, Sept. 25, 2006).
If the BLM decision is upheld, new roads could be allowed in close to 60 million acres of currently protected forest land, the conservation groups said. The underlying goal of the lawsuit is to reinforce RACR as the law of the land.
"We are happy that the court exercised its authority before that authority was usurped by the bulldozers ripping through the roadless area," said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop. "And we are hopeful that this temporary stay of execution will lead to these roadless areas being permanently spared the executioner's axe."
The plaintiffs in the case being represented by Earthjustice are the Wilderness Workshop, Western Colorado Congress, Western Slope Environmental Resource Council, High Country Citizens Alliance, and Center for Biological Diversity. Pitkin County, CO, is also a plaintiff.
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