WASHINGTON (AP) -- Bush administration plans for managing national forests were dealt a setback by a federal court ruling that revives a logging and road-building ban, could halt some road building in Idaho and threaten timber sales in Alaska.
Environmentalists welcomed the ruling, which affects 58.5 million acres.
``Their efforts to allow the logging companies back onto national forest lands took a major blow because this ruling means our last unspoiled public forest lands are safe from the axe,'' said Tim Preso, a Bozeman, Mont.-based staff attorney for Earthjustice, a law firm that represented environmentalists in the case.
Western Republicans have decried the rule as impeding fire-fighting and timbering. But the administration, which wants to give local residents more say, won't pursue fire-prevention projects in roadless areas, a White House official said Friday.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling means the administration must allow a key part of former President Clinton's environmental legacy to take effect. The rule prohibits virtually all road building or other development in roadless parcels of 5,000 acres or more, acreage that covers a third of America's national forests or 2 percent of the nation's land mass.
A three-judge panel of the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed U.S. District Judge Edward J. Lodge of Idaho's temporary injunction that had blocked the rule and sent the case back to Lodge for further consideration.
On Wednesday, the White House unveiled a new fire-prevention plan that it hopes will allow for quicker cutting of trees and overgrowth on public lands by limiting environmental reviews and public appeals.
Mark Rey, an Agriculture Department undersecretary, said government lawyers were reviewing the decision.
He said the U.S. Forest Service ``is committed to protecting and managing roadless values'' and places importance on roadless areas already inventoried in the national forest system.
Two of the few places where the rule's impact might be felt soon were Idaho and Alaska's 17 million-acre Tongass National Forest, where the Forest Service has at least a couple dozen pending timber sales.
With 9 million acres of roadless areas, the Tongass is the largest single region without roads in the nation. But the pending sales depend on a Forest Service re-evaluation of wilderness areas, government officials say. Most new timber sales in remote areas there were temporarily halted this year until the agency finishes work on a court-ordered environmental impact study.
Idaho Attorney General Al Lance said the state would ask the court to rehear the case since the rule could lead to ``the spread of unnaturally severe wildfires, insect infestations and forest disease from the national forests to adjacent land.''
The rule will be a blow to the Kootenai tribe's efforts to build roads ``to have access to religiously significant sites in the national forests,'' said Raymond Ludwiszewski, the tribe's lawyer.
The vast majority of roadless federal forests are in the West, but smaller sections are scattered across the country from Florida's Apalachicola and Virginia's George Washington to New Hampshire's White Mountains.
Chris West, vice president of timber-industry group American Forest Resource Council, said the Clinton administration never made it clear which areas would be affected.
``The evidence is clear the public did not have the information to thoroughly comment on this proposal,'' West said. ``We look forward to Judge Lodge proceeding with this case on the merits.''
The Idaho case is one of about a half-dozen challenges of the roadless rule that had been held up by the 9th Circuit. Now, these cases will likely move forward.
Ruling 2-1, the appeals court said the tribe, the logging industry and snowmobile groups were not irreparably harmed by the rules.
``Unlike the resource destruction that attends development, and that is bound to have permanent repercussions, restrictions on forest development and human intervention can be removed if later proved to be more harmful than helpful,'' Judge Ronald M. Gould wrote.
Judge Andrew M. Kleinfeld dissented, saying the roadless rule increases fire dangers by making remote areas less accessible and should be blocked.
The case is Kootenai Tribe v. Veneman, 01-35472.