The U.S.Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit earlier this week vacated a lower court’s decision in 2003 to permanently enjoin the enforcement of the Clinton administration’s “roadless” rule, which had placed more than 58 million acres of forest lands off limits to energy exploration and production, logging and other activities.

Pointing to a replacement rule adopted by the Agriculture Department’s U.S. Forest Service in May, the court said, “We concluded that the new rule has mooted the issues in this case, and therefore, dismiss the appeal and vacate the district court’s judgment.” It remanded the case to the lower court for dismissal without prejudice.

The state of Wyoming, the petitioner in the case, challenged a decision by a U.S. District Court judge in Wyoming who enjoined the Clinton administration’s ban on road building from taking effect on the grounds that it violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Wilderness Act of 1984, which allows only Congress to designate wilderness lands.

While the appeal was pending, the Bush administration issued and adopted in May a replacement final rule establishing a process for state governors to petition the Agriculture Department to potentially open up vast acres of remote national forest lands in their respective states to road building, energy exploration and other activities. The rule gives state governors the option to either keep their wilderness lands roadless or open them up to development.

Most of the inventoried national forest lands at issue are located in Alaska and 11 western states, and had been barred from road building and other development by President Clinton in the final days of his administration in 2001. The lands are projected to hold 11 Tcf of domestic natural gas, according to a group of independent producers.

In asking the 10th Circuit in Denver to uphold the district court’s ruling, the Wyoming Outdoor Council, Wilderness Society, Sierra Club and other groups argued that the Forest Service in issuing its new final rule had “strategically manipulated the courts and should not benefit from the preservation of the district court’s judgment by a declaration of mootness.”

But the appeals court begged to differ. “It appears that the replacement of the roadless rule was not triggered by the district court’s judgment, but merely reflects the government’s discontent with the rule itself. Any change to the rule would necessarily have an impact on this case and, therefore, should not automatically raise the specter of manipulation,” it said.

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