A coalition of conservation groups has filed a lawsuit challenging a recent decision by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to allow construction of a natural gas pipeline in Colorado — a decision attorneys representing the groups say violated the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule (RACR) and could open millions of forested acres to development.

On its surface the lawsuit appears to be a straightforward challenge of the federal regulators’ authorization in January of the 25.5-mile Bull Mountain Pipeline in western Colorado. The conservation groups contend that construction of the pipeline will include a 100-foot-wide “construction corridor” for use by heavy trucks and equipment in violation of the RACR. If the BLM decision is upheld, new roads could be allowed in close to 60 million acres of currently protected forest land, they said. The underlying goal of the lawsuit, which was filed last week in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado in Denver, is to reinforce RACR as the law of the land.

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.

“By playing word games and calling the road a ‘temporary use area’ or a ‘construction zone,’ the Forest Service is attempting to skirt the spirit and letter of the law to punch this project through,” 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).

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