SAN FRANCISCO The Bush administration had the right to overturn a ban on road construction in untouched parts of national forests, but may have needed to weigh possible environmental effects at the same time, a federal judge said Tuesday.
U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Laporte said the Forest Service appeared to be "on solid ground" last year when it reversed a Clinton administration rule banning new roads on nearly a third of federal forests.
But she questioned whether the agency violated federal law by skipping environmental studies the heart of two lawsuits brought by 20 environmental groups and the states of California, Oregon, New Mexico and Washington. The cases have since been consolidated, and all parties presented arguments Tuesday.
Laporte said she did not know when she would issue a final decision.
The legal dispute stems from the "roadless rule" that prohibited logging, mining and other development on 58.5 million acres of roadless forestland in 38 states and Puerto Rico.
Timber companies dependent on national forest land and some western states challenged the Clinton rule, and the Bush administration in May 2005 replaced it with a voluntary state-by-state petition process. Critics said the reversal did not address environmental wildlife studies.
If the court decides environmental violations occurred, the judge could invalidate the voluntary strategy and restore the ban.