By Jeremy Pelofsky
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court ruled on Friday that the government properly designated millions of acres of national forests as off limits to logging and road construction, overturning a lower court ruling in a long-running battle over preserving the land.
For the second time, the U.S. Appeals Court for the 10th Circuit, based in Denver, overturned a decision by a federal judge in Wyoming who had found the ban that covered some 58.5 million acres (23.67 million hectares) of forest lands exceeded the U.S. Forest Service's authority.
The restrictions were adopted in 2001 in the waning days of the Clinton administration to preserve the lands unless needed for environmental reasons or to reduce the risk of wildfires. They were challenged by the state of Wyoming.
That lawsuit was dismissed as moot after the Bush administration relaxed the regulations in 2005. A separate appeals court rejected the new Bush-era rules and affirmed a decision to reinstate the 2001 restrictions.
Concerns about the regulations have ranged from accessing natural resources to blocking recreational uses.
Wyoming again filed a lawsuit to block the 2001 restrictions, known as the "Roadless Rules," and a federal judge in the state again agreed to a permanent injunction.
On Friday, the 10th Circuit found that the Forest Service did not usurp congressional authority and acted appropriately within its own statutory authority to issue the restrictions.
"Wyoming failed to demonstrate that the Forest Service's promulgation of the Roadless Rule violated" several laws, the 120-page opinion said. The appeals court ordered that the permanent injunction blocking the rules issued be vacated.
Wyoming Governor Matt Mead plans to evaluate legal options, his spokesman said. That could include asking the full appeals court to review the ruling or go to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"The implications of this ruling for Wyoming could be immense," said Renny MacKay, the governor's communicators director. "There are over 3 million acres of national forests in Wyoming, which would be subject to restrictions under the roadless rule."
The Forest Service had no immediate comment.
(Additional reporting by Chuck Abbott, editing by Philip Barbara)
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