October 23rd, 2012 by
Danube Delta

Danube Delta. Credit: Austin Donisan/Flickr

There was some legal news this month in the world of the seemingly never-ending litigation concerning the Roadless Rule. The United States Supreme Court declined to review the Roadless Rule ruling (try saying that five times fast) from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. If you aren’t familiar with how the appeals process works, never fear, most people aren’t. In the federal court system, the first level of decision-making is done by the district courts, aka the trial courts. If the losing party wants to, it may, within a certain time frame, appeal to the circuit court. There are 13 circuit courts in the United States: 1st-11th Circuits, the D.C. Circuit and the Federal Circuit. Each of these circuit courts covers specific states: the 10th Circuit covers Utah, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico and Kansas. It is the decision of the appellate court that can be reviewed by the United States Supreme Court.

Earlier this month, in somewhat anticlimactic fashion, the Supreme Court declined to review the 10th Circuit decision that upheld the Roadless Rule. By deciding not to review the case, the Supreme Court let stand the 10th Circuit decision upholding the Roadless Rule. The rule, originally formulated at the end of the Clinton administration, limits road construction and timber harvesting on more than 58 million acres of currently undeveloped national forest land. With this decision by the Supreme Court, the only ongoing litigation concerning the Roadless Rule is a case filed by the state of Alaska concerning Tongass National Forest. It is currently pending in federal court in D.C.

Danube Delta

Danube Delta. Credit: Sergiu Biris/Flickr

Danube Delta

Danube Delta. Credit: Sergiu Luchian/Flickr

The Roadless Rule is designed to protect undeveloped forestland from logging and road building — activities that humans have carried out for thousands of years. Before I began my legal career, I worked at a college in Ohio, where I had the opportunity to take a number of geology courses. Those courses, coupled with my passion for history, triggered my interest in a recent report on Scientific Reports about such an undeveloped forest.

While current forest rules can be subject to the ebb and flow of administrative action and litigation outcomes, it was recently discovered that the rich ecosystem that exists in the Danube Delta of eastern Europe has its origins in deforestation that occurred 3,000 years ago. The Danube Delta, which exists where the freshwater river flows into the Black Sea, is home to countless species existing in 23 different ecosystems. Scientists recently explored the beginning of the Delta by analyzing the sediment that has built up over the years. And among the diatoms and dinoflagellates (and people say legalese is obtuse!), scientists discovered a marked increase in sediment loads between 2,000-3,000 years ago.

This sediment load increase was linked to large-scale deforestation that occurred farther up the Danube watershed. Scientists determined that by the height of the Roman Empire, approximately 2,000 years ago, large portions of Serbia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria had already undergone significant clearing in order cultivate land for crops. Over time, this deforestation led to increased sediment runoff, which travelled down to settle at the intersection of the Danube and the Black Sea. The sediment build up was key in the development of the area’s marshes and wetlands, developing into the varied ecosystems that exist today. By studying the chemical make-up of these sediments, scientists were able to discover periods of large-scale deforestation that may otherwise have never been known. This deforestation— to accommodate agriculture for an expanding human population — triggered the beginnings of a vibrant ecosystem that is still with us today.

While this historical deforestation has led to the multifaceted ecosystems that currently exist in the Danube Delta, the results of present-day deforestation can be ecologically devastating, leading to a loss of wildlife habitat and increasing soil erosion. As the Roadless Rule and its litigation demonstrate, forests, along with their protection and use, continue to be pivotal pieces in the development of our human environment.