The right of ordinary Americans to participate in the management of their national forests could be eliminated by a Bush administration regulation enacted under the guidance of a former timber industry lobbyist, according to a lawsuit filed today by several conservation groups.
The lawsuit challenges regulation changes enacted by the administration in early June, which could eliminate rights to comment and appeal on some Forest Service actions.
"There are no two ways about it – my rights would be lost and my business harmed if the Forest Service moved forward under the administration's new rules, " said Lyndi Caine who owns the Firehole Ranch, a fly-fishing resort, near national forest land outside West Yellowstone, Montana.
"The Forest Service wanted to do helicopter logging– right over the heads of my guests and family – which would have severely harmed or destroyed my business. With these new changes, the Forest Service now could come in here and do a project without even having to tell me about it or allowing me to make suggestions or comments on how to improve their decision," Caine said. "My only opportunity to influence the decision would be to sue the federal government, which I don't want to do."
The new regulations allow political appointees in the Bush administration, including former timber lobbyist turned Under Secretary of Agriculture Mark Rey, to eliminate the right of any citizen -- whether an individual, logger, businessman, or community leader -- to comment on, to appeal, or even to be notified about national forest decisions. These restrictions on public involvement apply even if a citizen's livelihood, drinking water, or quality of life is directly affected by the decision made by the Forest Service.
"Under these new regulations, Mark Rey could meet with his timber industry friends to work out a timber sale on public lands, then finalize the decision so that the public would be denied any legal right to notice, comment, or appeal," said Doug Honnold, an Earthjustice attorney handling the case.
Rey worked as timber lobbyist from 1976 to 1994 and now oversees the Forest Service.
The lawsuit, filed by Earthjustice lawyers on behalf of The Wilderness Society, American Wildlands, and Pacific Rivers Council, challenges Bush administration regulations that seek to cut back on public rights to receive notice of pending timber sales or other National Forest decisions, comment on such projects before they are finalized, and ultimately to appeal the Forest Service's decisions. Before the administration developed new regulations, the Forest Service was required to provide public notice of an upcoming project and to take public comments on their plans. Citizens also had the right to file administrative appeals within 45 days of a Forest Service decision. Now, under the administration's new policy, the Forest Service has several options to eliminate public involvement in National Forest logging.
The administration's regulations fly in the face of a ruling issued just last year by Federal District Judge Donald Molloy, where he ruled that: "It is presumptuous to believe that the agency's final decision has a perfection about it that would not be illuminated by interested comment, questioning, or requests for justification of propositions asserted in it."
"We still live in a democracy and our National Forests are still the property of the American people," said Rob Ament, executive director of American Wildlands. "It is our responsibility to make sure that our rights, democratic traditions and the National Forests are not stolen away from us behind closed doors in Washington, D.C."
"The administration's actions send a clear signal to ordinary Americans: Your comments don't count because we know best," said Bob Friemark, Pacific Northwest Regional Director for The Wilderness Society. "During the past six months this administration has proposed many, many regulation changes that eliminate or reduce public participation, while they have done nothing to make the Forest Service more accountable for its actions."
"We support the Forest Service pursuing an environmentally sound program to manage our forests including fuels reduction and timber harvest. But the public expects – and deserves – to have a say in how our public lands are managed," said Freimark.
"Today the Bush administration is trying to cut the public out of the decision making on public lands," said David Bayles, director of the Pacific Rivers Council, based in Eugene, Oregon. "For many years the Forest Service ignored the public and ran our National Forests as they saw fit," continued Bayles. "This helped get us into the mess we're in today. That's why citizen involvement is so important concerning how the forests should be run."