Federal court tosses last roadless rule challenge

In a development with a tangential relation to the coal industry, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on March 25 ended a challenge by the state of Alaska against a Clinton Administration rule protecting tens of millions of acres of roadless forest lands from logging and road building.

“The Alaska case was the final litigation challenging the rule nationwide,” noted the environmental group Earthjustice in a March 25 statement. “The court held that no further challenges are allowed, because the statute of limitations has run out.”

The roadless rule, fought out for years in federal courts by states and industrial groups seeking to develop protected roadless areas, has had some impact on the coal industry, which develops mines within roadless areas. The potential impact was particularly big at three coal mines along the North Fork of the Gunnison River in Colorado. But the state of Colorado worked out its own state-specific roadless rule with the feds, with the feds granting final approval of that rule in 2012, that grandfathered those coal mines. Arch Coal’s (NYSE: ACI) West Elk longwall mine in that area had been particularly affected by the roadless rule.

Earthjustice attorney Tom Waldo said about the March 25 court decision: “This is a complete victory for the Roadless Rule. It means that it’s too late not only for the state of Alaska, but for anyone to file lawsuits against the rule, which has withstood every legal challenge. The Forest Service adopted it with overwhelming public support. It is important for clean water, fish, wildlife and recreation in the remaining intact areas of the national forests.”

The court dismissed the state’s lawsuit for being filed after the six-year statute of limitations. The state of Alaska’s case, though focused on state issues, sought to strike down the Roadless Rule nationwide. The federal government defended the rule with conservation groups allowed into the case as intervenors.

Last fall, Earthjustice noted, the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear an appeal on a similar lawsuit brought by the state of Wyoming and a mining industry group from Colorado. The 2001 Roadless Rule, issued literally in the last days of the Clinton Administration, prohibits new road construction and logging on large undeveloped areas of national forest land across the U.S. Coal can’t be strip mined on U.S. Forest Service land anyway, but the roadless rule can impact roadbuilding needed to establish above-ground facilities, like ventilation shaft outlets and exploration drilling pads, that are used to support allowed deep mining of these coal reserves.

The U.S. Department of Justice and the conservation group intervenors filed motions to dismiss the Alaska case, arguing the state missed the statute of limitations. Attorneys for Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council represented the conservation groups. A long list of intervenor-plaintiffs in the case from various affected industries included Alaska Electric Light and Power, the Southeast Alaska Power Agency and the Alaska Miners Assn.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.