In a lawsuit filed today against the Office of U.S. Trade Representative and the U.S. Department of Commerce, environmental groups accuse U.S. trade policy makers of giving exclusive access to the timber industry in trade advisory committees while marginalizing environmental groups. The lawsuit challenges two advisory committees set up to give advice to the administration on trade policy relating to forest products. These committees exercise substantial influence over decision making on trade matters and enjoy access to information about trade policy that is withheld from the general public. Yet they are made up entirely of representatives from the wood and paper products industries and have no members representing environmental and community organizations working to protect forests.
The environmental groups charge that under the current regime, the administration hears only one side of the story through these advisory committees. It gets input from those interested in exploiting forests to produce commodities but not from anyone seeking to protect forest ecosystems around the world.
"We've been entirely cut out of the advisory committee process," said Paige Fischer, of the Pacific Environment and Resources Center. "We've been trying for years just to get information about what they're doing, but it's like pulling teeth. We're not even allowed to peek in the room, while industry has every seat at the table."
The lawsuit charges that the skewed make-up of these committees violates a federal law, called the Federal Advisory Committee Act, that requires federal advisory committees to be "fairly balanced" in terms of the points of view represented. The lawsuit seeks a court injunction preventing the administration from seeking or using any advice from committees until a balance of stakeholders, including environmental representatives, are appointed.
"When it comes to negotiating trade agreements and developing trade policy, the administration has ignored basic democratic principles," said Patti Goldman, the attorney with Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund who filed the case. "These advisory committees collide with laws that prohibit such one-sided influence behind closed doors by only those with money and influence."
The lawsuit comes as the U.S. is supporting a deregulation package for the forest sector that threatens to increase consumption and invalidate forest protection regulations. One piece of this package is a tariff elimination initiative for the forest products sector that the administration hopes to finalize at the December 1999 meeting of the WTO in Seattle. By eliminating all tariffs on forest products worldwide, the timber industry predicts global consumption of forest products to increase up to 4%, thereby accelerating global consumption of forest products, thereby accelerating deforestation and endangering global climate stability. The other piece of the package threatens to eviscerate domestic environmental regulations that promote sustainable and environmentally friendly forestry practices but that are viewed by corporate interests as barriers to free trade.
"We have fought for years for strong forest protections only to have our government support trade policies that threaten to eliminate that protection and open the door for commercial exploitation without regard for the ecological consequences," said Joe Scott of the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance.
Dan Seligman of the Sierra Club observed, "This is another example of the United States doing the bidding of industry and ignoring the environment in its blind pursuit of free trade."
The plaintiffs are the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, the Pacific Environment and Resources Center, Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, Buckeye Forest Council, and the International Forum on Globalization. The plaintiffs are represented by the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund.