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Earth Week interview: Earthjustice’s Tom Turner

Submitted by on 1, April 21, 2009 – 6:00 amNo Comment

5In the final days of the Clinton Administration, the federal government adopted the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which is billed as having protected more land than any other federal rule in a generation. The rule bars road building and timber cutting on nearly 60 million acres of national forest. But it wasn’t to last without a fight: The law was quickly challenged in court, and the Bush Administration did little to defend it.

Oakland-based environmental lawyers Earthjustice coordinated environmental and other groups to fight the demise of the roadless rule. And Earthjustice’s Tom Turner wrote a book about it. He’ll make an Earth Day appearance at Books Inc. to talk about his book, “Roadless Rules,” at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 22. Books Inc. is at 1344 Park Street, and the event is free and open to the public. In the meantime, Turner took some time out to answer some questions from The Island.

Can you explain the what the “roadless rule” is and its significance?
The roadless rule bans the building of roads and the cutting of trees on nearly 60 million acres of pristine national forest lands. It protects more land than any single rule or law since the 1970s, when 100 million acres in Alaska were protected.

The Bush Administration worked to dismantle the rule. What were their tactics?
The Bush strategy was to offer only tepid defense to lawsuits filed to challenge the rule (there were nine) so, when judges found the rule illegal the administration could say, “it’s not our fault. The courts brought down the rule, not us.”

How did environmental groups first learn of the Bush Administration’s efforts, and how did they react?
The strategy became immediately apparent as soon as the first case, filed in Idaho, was heard in court. The environmental groups then determined that if the administration wouldn’t defend the rule, they would.

What was Earthjustice’s role in this fight?
Earthjustice served as legal counsel to the environmental groups – 20 or more – that worked to defend the rule, and its chief lobbyist was a key player in the creation of the rule in the first place. Eventually about 10 Earthjustice lawyers participated in the defense of the rule.

What were the results of environmentalists’ efforts?
Nearly all roadless acres remained without roads throughout the struggle, and the environmentalists were able to thwart the Bush Administration’s attempt to replace the original rule with one of its own that offered no protection whatever to the acres in question.

How did your book come about?
I got particularly interested when the defense of the rule devolved onto the environmental groups. (An) Idaho judge ruled the rule illegal and Earthjustice appealed for the groups. The Forest Service, defendant in the case, did not appeal – (it) dropped out of the case. The environmental groups were allowed to carry the case themselves and got the Idaho injunction overturned. This was unique in the 38 years of Earthjustice’s experience and seemed like a story worth telling.

What would you say is the message/intent of your book?
It’s heavy on litigation history, but the basic message is that when the grassroots, the policy community, the environmental lobbyists in (Washington) D.C., the scientists, the religious community, the funding community, the outdoor business community, the recreation community, and the lawyers work together, great things can happen.

What direction do you think this policy will take under President Obama?
A bill has been introduced (or soon will be) to enact the original rule into law. The 60-vote filibuster business in the Senate is still a problem, and there are a few conservative Democrats who are not enthusiastic about the rule. For the time being, at least, the environmental community is asking Agriculture Secretary (Tom) Vilsack to direct the Forest Service to proceed as if the rule were in effect.

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