A federal appeals court on Friday upheld a rule prohibiting roads on nearly 50 million acres of land in national forests across the United States, a ruling hailed by environmentalists as one of the most significant in decades.
Mining and energy companies, however, say it could limit development of natural resources such as coal, oil and natural gas.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals backed the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule after lawyers for the state of Wyoming and the Colorado Mining Association contended it was a violation of the law.
Supporters of the roadless rule say the court's decision preserves areas where outdoor enthusiasts like to hunt, fish, hike and camp. It also protects water quality and wildlife habitat for grizzly bears, lynx and Pacific salmon, supporters say.
"Without the roadless rule, protection of these national forests would be left to a patchwork management system that in the past resulted in millions of acres lost to logging, drilling and other industrial development," said Jane Danowitz, director of the Pew Environment Group's U.S. public lands program.
"The public forests we've fought so hard to protect are now safe," added Tim Preso, an Earthjustice attorney representing the conservation groups.
U.S. Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell also applauded the decision.
The Colorado Mining Association was reviewing its next steps involving the roadless rule.
In a statement, the association said it was disappointed that the ruling does not reflect a practical understanding of the impact on mining jobs or energy needs.
"It is important to develop high-quality coal and other mineral reserves impacted by this regulation here in the United States and in Colorado, both to ensure our nation's energy security and reduce our dependence on minerals produced in other countries," the statement said.
The U.S. Forest Service currently manages more than 190 million acres of land used for multiple purposes that must comply with strict rules on land use changes spelled out in the federal Wilderness Act and National Environmental Policy Act.
Renny MacKay, spokesman for GOP Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, said the state has not decided whether to appeal the ruling made Friday.
"This is a lengthy and significant decision and Gov. Mead will be evaluating the options for Wyoming over the coming weeks," MacKay said.
The roadless rule was put in place by the Clinton administration in 2001, not long before George W. Bush took office as president. The rule followed more than two years of public hearings and 1.6 million comments.
Wyoming and the Colorado Mining Association argued the rule violates the 1964 Wilderness Act. Wyoming attorneys also argued the definition of roadless lands is synonymous with wilderness lands. The 1964 Wilderness Act states only Congress can designate wilderness lands.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and environmental groups said there are differences between the designations. Roadless areas allow for some mineral development and more recreational activities, such as bicycles and ATVs, which the wilderness category forbids, they said.
Conflicting federal court rulings have upheld and overturned the road-building ban. The California-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out a 2005 Bush administration policy that opened some of the roadless areas to potential development.
Two other legal actions to protect roadless areas are pending, including a lawsuit contesting application of the roadless rule to national forests in Alaska, and a suit challenging a separate, less protective rule that applies only to areas of Idaho.
Colorado, like Idaho, tried crafting its own roadless rule when the court challenges left the federal policy in doubt. Its proposal is awaiting final approval from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
The Colorado rule would carve out exceptions to the federal rule to allow methane venting at existing coal operations, potential ski resort expansions and forest thinning.
The Obama administration has said it will defend the federal rule.
"These areas are vital for protecting watersheds, and providing recreation, hunting and fishing opportunities," Tidwell said in a written statement.