Alaska Editorial: Roadless Rule in Supreme Court’s hands

  • Wednesday, October 21, 2015 1:04am
  • Opinion

The following editorial first appeared in the Ketchikan Daily News:

It was in January of 2001 that President Bill Clinton, in the final moments of his presidency, signed the Roadless Area Conservation Policy that would block roadbuilding in 58 million acres of national forest land across the country — eventually including large swaths of the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska.

A parting gift to the environmental movement, Clinton’s “Roadless Rule” was about much more than just roads.

In the words of Earthjustice, the directive ended “virtually all logging … and coal, gas, oil, and other mineral leasing” in those 58 million acres.

That’s not to mention the Roadless Rule’s quashing of green hydropower and geothermal energy development, or just about any other economic activity that would involve more than flying over, boating around or walking into the restricted areas.

Given the Roadless Rule’s stranglehold on the economic potential of areas such as Southeast Alaska, it wasn’t a surprise that Clinton’s immediate successor in office, President George W. Bush, began working to slow, if not block, the rule’s implementation. States, business interests and environmental groups quickly joined the fight, which has pinged like a pinball from court to court ever since.

In recent years, the legal battle has focused on the Roadless Rule in the Tongass National Forest.

The Tongass was exempted from the Roadless Rule by a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals split decision in early 2014, but, this past July, another and larger 9th Circuit panel ruled that the Tongass exemption is illegal.

All of which brings us to Oct. 13, when the Alaska Attorney General’s office announced that the state has petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the most recent appeals court decision.

The state is essentially arguing that elections matter, targeting the appeals court’s assertion that Clinton’s policy should remain in place regardless of the policy goals of Bush (or, we suppose, any current of future president).

“The petition argues that the 9th Circuit violated a basic principle of administrative law in ruling that the new administration’s different political values and policy priorities were not a sufficient justification for changing the policies of the previous administration,” according to the state’s petition announcement.

That makes sense. The U.S. Constitution sets the basic parameters for federal government operations. Beyond that, presidents and members of Congress are constantly engaged in shaping policies based upon their political views and priorities.

For a court to freeze one president’s policy in place and argue that it can’t be changed by a future president who has different views is, well, a bit nuts.

If all the policy decisions have been made already, we might as well shutter the White House and close Congress, in addition to a whole mess of policy-generating agency bureaucracies. That might sound like a great idea sometimes, but it’s not how our system of government is supposed to work.

This seems like an issue of broad national interest that the U.S. Supreme Court would be interested in taking up — and should take up.

As for the Roadless Rule, our view is that the Tongass National Forest should remain exempt in order to maintain the possibility of balanced economic opportunities for a region that relies on natural resources.

There are enough regulations and processes in place, without a Roadless Rule, to ensure environmental protections.

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