The National Forest System Roadless Areas Initiative

Publication Date: September 2006

Publisher: Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service


Research Area: Environment



The roadless areas of the National Forest System have received special management attention for decades. In part to recognize the importance of national forest roadless areas for many purposes and in part because making project decisions involving roadless areas on a forest-by-forest basis was resulting in controversy and litigation that consumed considerable time and money, the Clinton Administration established a new nationwide approach to the management of the roadless areas in the National Forest System. A record of decision (ROD) and a final rule were published on January 12, 2001, that prohibited most road construction and reconstruction in 58.5 million acres of inventoried forest roadless areas, with significant exceptions. Most timber cutting in roadless areas also was prohibited, with some exceptions, including improving habitat for threatened, endangered, proposed, or sensitive species, or reducing the risk of wildfire and disease. With some exceptions, the new prohibitions would have applied immediately to the Tongass National Forest in Alaska.

The Bush Administration initially postponed the effective date of the roadless area rule, then decided to allow it to be implemented while proposing amendments. However, the Federal District Court for Idaho preliminarily enjoined its implementation. The Ninth Circuit reversed the Idaho district court, but on July 14, 2003, the Federal District Court for Wyoming again permanently enjoined implementation of the Rule. This holding was appealed but dismissed as moot by the 10th Circuit. A final rule "temporarily" exempting the Tongass National Forest (Alaska) from the roadless rule was published December 30, 2003. On July 16, 2004, a new general roadless rule was proposed and a new final rule was published on May 13, 2005. The new rule eliminates the need for a separate Tongass rule, and replaces the Clinton roadless rule with a procedure whereby the governor of a state may petition the Secretary of Agriculture to promulgate a special rule for the management of roadless areas in that state, and make recommendations for that management. The new rule contains no standards by which the Secretary is to review a state's recommendations, and does not address the weight to be given to the views of local residents versus those of out-of-state residents with an interest in the public lands. Five states, including New Mexico and California, have filed petitions so far and those of Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina have been approved. Other states have until November 13, 2006, to file petitions under the special procedure or may seek a rule change thereafter under 7 C.F.R. section 1.28.

A new final forest planning rule was also published on January 5, 2005. The rule does not address roadless areas at all, but does require review of areas that might be suitable for wilderness designation when plans are revised.

This report traces the development and content of the roadless area rules and directives, describes the statutory background, reviews recent events, and analyzes some of the legal issues. The report will be updated as circumstances warrant.