Two conservation groups today filed suit in U.S. District Court in Montana to protect the public's right to appeal United States Forest Service decisions. Earlier this week the Forest Service moved to exclude the public from involvement in one of the largest timber sales in the agency's history.
"I don't understand why the Forest Service is so unwilling to hear what the public has to say," said Doug Honnold, a lawyer with Earthjustice. "Our position is clear: the public has a right to be heard. The end run on the appeals process is a troubling precedent that is bad policy and inconsistent with the law. We will take that issue to federal court to let a judge decide."
On Monday, U.S. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary Mark Rey – at the request of Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth – co-signed the Bitterroot logging plan. Typically, a Forest Supervisor would sign the decision, and the public then would have 45 days to appeal the decision. By having Rey sign the plan, the Forest Service claims it can circumvent that process, known as administrative appeal.
"It's been five months since the public last had an opportunity to comment on the proposal," said Rob Ament, Executive Director of American Wildlands. "The Forest Service has made numerous substantive changes to the plan since then but has gagged the public from submitting helpful comments. Now, with one swipe of the pen, Under Secretary Rey is telling Montanans and other interested citizens: 'tough luck.'"
"It's unfortunate we find ourselves in this situation," said Bob Ekey from The Wilderness Society. "We have no desire to be in court, but the Forest Service's attempt to eliminate administrative appeals leaves us with no alternative. We want to uphold the integrity of the process and the right for taxpayers to comment on decisions made by their government."
The groups filing suit today believe the Forest Service's attempt to skip the public appeals process violates both the 1992 Appeals Reform Act and the agency's own regulations.
The Bitterroot National Forest proposes to log 176 million board feet on 41,000 acres. If approved – would be one of the largest post-fire timber sales in the history of the Forest Service.