A federal appeals court on Friday upheld a law prohibiting roads on nearly 50 million acres of land in national forests across the United States, a ruling hailed by environmentalists as one of the most significant in decades.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals backed the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule after lawyers for the state of Wyoming and the Colorado Mining Association contended it was a violation of the law.

The ruling affects 3.2 million acres of national forest land in Wyoming, protecting water quality and wildlife habitat for grizzly bears, lynx and Pacific salmon.

“This ruling is a huge victory for roadless forests all over the country,” said Erik Molvar of the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, one of the environmental groups involved in the lawsuit. “More than half of our national forests have already been heavily roaded and heavily industrialized, so the roadless areas that we have left represent the kind of last remnants of wild natural forest on our national forest system.”

The U.S. Forest Service currently manages more than 190 million acres of land used for multiple purposes that must comply with strict rules on land use changes spelled out in the federal Wilderness Act and National Environmental Policy Act.

Renny MacKay, spokesman for Gov. Matt Mead, said the state has not decided whether to appeal the ruling.

“This is a lengthy and significant decision and Governor Mead will be evaluating the options for Wyoming over the coming weeks,” MacKay said.

Colorado Mining Association President Stuart Sanderson said his organization is also studying the 120-page ruling and has not decided whether to appeal.

Wyoming and the Colorado Mining Association argued the rule violates the 1964 Wilderness Act.

Wyoming attorneys also argued the definition of roadless lands is synonymous with wilderness lands. The 1964 Wilderness Act states only Congress can designate wilderness lands.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and environmental groups said there are differences between the designations. Roadless areas allow for some mineral development and more recreational activities, such as bicycles and ATVs, which the wilderness category forbids, they said.

Conflicting federal court rulings have upheld and overturned the road-building ban. The California-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out a 2005 Bush administration policy that opened some of the roadless areas to potential development.

Two other legal actions to protect roadless areas are pending, including a lawsuit contesting application of the Roadless Area Conservation Rule to national forests in Alaska, and a suit challenging a separate, less protective rule that applies only to areas of Idaho.

The Obama administration has said it will defend the federal rule.

Marion Loomis, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, which didn’t take part in the lawsuit, said Friday’s ruling was unfortunate.

“We’re supportive of multiple-use, and it’s too bad,” Loomis said. “We’ll have to see what happens.”

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