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Judge rejects Alaska challenge to roadless rule

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Alaska's challenge to the Clinton administration-era roadless rule in national forests was rejected Monday by a federal judge, who said it came too late to be considered.

The rule that was put into place in January 2001 restricts road construction in national forest areas without roads.

The Bush administration in 2003 exempted the vast Tongass National Forest, the nation's largest at nearly 26,563 square miles on Alaska's Panhandle. A federal judge in March 2011 overturned that decision and the state of Alaska sued to overturn both the original rule and the rejection of the Tongass exemption.

In an eight-page opinion, Judge Richard J. Leon of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia said Alaska's challenge was too late, appearing after a six-year limit for appeals.

"The Court concludes that plaintiffs' complaints must be dismissed as untimely," he wrote in an eight-page decision.

Earthjustice attorney Tom Waldo, who represented the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and others who intervened in the case, said the decision should be the last word on the roadless rule, which remains in place despite challenges from Wyoming, Idaho and other states plus industry groups.

"It means not only that the state of Alaska can't challenge the rule, but it's too late for anyone to challenge the rule," he said. "It's time to move on."

Alaska officials contend the rule blocks logging and mining. U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, called the decision a blow to Alaska and resource development.

"The roadless rule has hampered responsible development for far too long, and I hope the state of Alaska will appeal," he said by email. "In the meantime, I intend to work with the Congressional Delegation to repeal the roadless rule as it applies to Alaska."

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, called the ruling frustrating. Unemployment in the region, he said by email, hovers around 15 percent.

"Southeast Alaska needs more jobs — not more federal regulations," he said.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Sean Parnell, Sharon Leighow, said the Alaska Department of Law was reviewing the decision. "We're looking at our options," said Assistant Attorney General Thomas Lenhart.

The rule prevents construction of new logging roads and prevents new logging clear-cuts in roadless areas in national forests, Waldo said. It does not, as Alaska has contended, prohibit new hydroelectric projects, utility lines, transmission lines or new state highways if they go through federal revenue sharing program.

The Forest Service adopted the rule with overwhelming public support after a long process that broadly included the American public in the decision-making, Waldo said. It protects places Americans families use for hiking, camping hunting and other recreation activities.

"These are the places where people take their vacations and the roadless rule ensures that those places will be available for generations to come," he said.

Alaska sued to overturn the rule after it was put into place in 2001, he said, but two years later signed a settlement agreement dropping the challenge. The agreement called for the federal government to propose a Tongass exemption but did not stop the statute of limitations running out on Alaska's right to a challenge the rule, Waldo said.

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