An environmental policy known as the “Roadless Rule” was reinstated for more than 40 million acres of national forest by a federal appeals court in San Francisco today.

The rule was adopted by the Clinton administration in January 2001 and generally prohibited road construction and timber harvesting in undeveloped areas of the National Forest system.

In 2005, the Bush administration replaced it with a policy known as the State Petitions Rule, which allowed individual states to propose regulations for roadless areas.

Three states – California, New Mexico and Oregon – and a coalition of environmental groups then sued the U.S. Forest Service and its parent agency, the Agriculture Department, in federal court in San Francisco to challenge the change.

In today’s decision, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a trial judge’s ruling that the agencies violated federal environmental laws by failing to conduct an environmental study and to consider the impact on endangered species.

Circuit Judge Robert Beezer wrote that a primary purpose of the 2005 State Petitions Rule “was taking substantive environmental protections off the books.” The panel said that could not be done without environmental review and public comment.

Tim Preso, a lawyer with Oakland-based Earthjustice, an environmental law firm, said the ruling affects more than 40 million acres of national forest in the lower 48 states.

Preso said, “This decision protects our public wild forests, wildlife habitat and places that many thousands of Americans go to each year for hunting, fishing, hiking and outdoor recreation.”

The Agriculture Department issued a statement saying, “The Obama administration supports conservation of roadless areas in our national forests and this decision today reaffirms the protection of these resources.”

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