Tom Turner

The Roadless Rule

Recorded: July 14, 2014

Tom Turner, an editor with EarthJustice, tells the story about the Roadless Rule, which establishes prohibitions on road construction, road reconstruction, and timber harvesting on 58.5 million acres of inventoried roadless areas on National Forest System lands. Tom shares how the U.S. Forest Service's Roadless Rule originated with RARE (Roadless Area Review and Evaluation), how it merged into RARE II, and was successfully challenged by the State of California Resources Agency, to finally emerge years later as the Roadless Rule. Tom explains that EarthJustice had a unique role in defending this rule at a time when the federal government was absent.

Tom Turner is an author and editor and has worked with the legendary David Brower for nearly 20 years, first at the Sierra Club and then in starting and building Friends of the Earth. He has edited the journal Not Man Apart, authored three books, and written articles published in such newspapers as the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post.

He has also written extensively for environmental periodicals such as Sierra, Mother Earth News, The Amicus Journal, and many others. In 1986, he began working for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, now known as Earthjustice. Today he is Earthjustice’s senior editor and director of publications.

Turner has given hundreds of talks and radio and television interviews in his 35-year career. He has been a guest lecturer in the “New Horizons in Science” series sponsored by the National Science Foundation, has given his “100 Years of the Sierra Club” lecture to numerous audiences, and recently made a presentation to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco entitled “Justice on Earth.”


Tom Turner:   In 1964, Congress enacted, and President Johnson signed, the Wilderness Act which ordered the [U.S] Forest Service, the Parks Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management to survey their lands for possible wilderness areas or places to suggest to Congress that might be legitimate for setting aside as wilderness. Never to be developed, no roads, no machines of any sort. Well, the first agency to produce such a survey was the Forest Service, it was called RARE, The Roadless Area Review and Evaluation and it was hopeless. It found that there were something like, I’m not sure about the numbers but 12 or 14 million acres of potential wilderness on the national forest, and by the way, we should release all the rest of them for logging and mining and so forth. So that was so heavily criticized that the Forest Service withdrew it and launched RARE II, which was the second version of the Roadless Area Review and Evaluation. And it came out, and it wasn’t much better than its predecessor.  And so the Secretary of Resources for the State of California filed suit, that’s you in case you don’t remember.

Huey Johnson:   Yeah, I remember it vividly.

Tom Turner:   Filed suit and got it tossed. It – I forget what the court based the decision on but that was found to be inadequate and illegal and it was thrown out. So it just sort of languished, and there was to be a timber sale proposed here and somebody would sue about that and it was just a mess. So about half way through the Clinton Administration, the Chief of the Forest Service was a biologist named Mike Dombeck. So he started scratching his head and thought, we really should settle this. This is just going on and on, and there are roads in the national forest all over the place that are failing and slumping into trout streams and salmon streams. We don’t have any money for maintenance, and yet we want to keep building new roads and open up new places for logging.  And he finally — well, he got approval from Clinton to put a moratorium for, I think it was a year and a half, on any new roads in any national, unroaded parts of national forest during which time he cooked up this thing. It came to be known as the Roadless Rule. And the idea was that the Forest Service would forever ban new roads on roadless areas in the national forest that numbered about 58 million acres. A lot of them in Alaska obviously, but a lot in Idaho and bits here and there, a lot in California.

Tom Turner:   This was finally proposed and Clinton finally signed it as an executive order about a week or so before he left office in January of 2000, with the Bush crowd slathering and spinning its wheels and getting ready to ruin everything. So immediately, this roadless rule was challenged in nine separate lawsuits in Wyoming, Idaho, Alaska, the Dakota’s, Colorado. And the Bush administration immediately sort of turned its back because it didn’t like this roadless rule, and thought, well okay, we can, we can have, we can let the courts throw it out. We won’t defend it. If someone criticizes this, we can blame it on the courts. The courts made us do it, you know so.

Tom Turner:   Well, the organization I was working for then, which was still called Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, soon to become Earth Justice, intervened in all those lawsuits and was allowed to defend this federal rule when the federal government was nowhere to be seen. And I found this a fascinating legal situation and it’s very unusual.

Huey Johnson:   Yeah.

Tom Turner:   That doesn’t happen very often. And in fact over, well, the final resolution of it was only a year or two ago, I think. One of these cases eventually made it up to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court refused to review it, and we had won in the Court of Appeals, so it stands. But for 15 years almost, there were these struggles going on in the courts and in the streets and everywhere over the preservation of roadless areas so I thought this could be a book, and it is.

Huey Johnson:   Wonderful, good for you.