Environmentalists File Suit to Axe Bush Forest Plan
WASHINGTON, DC, February 18, 2005 (ENS) - A coalition of conservation groups filed a lawsuit Thursday challenging the Bush administration's revisions to the federal government's management framework for the national forest system.
The groups contend the Bush rules fail to protect wildlife and the environment and were designed to appease logging and mining interests.
"The nation's forests and the people who own them deserve better than this," said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife. "We are hopeful the courts will send these rules back to the industry lobbyists who wrote them, stamped 'illegal'."
The regulations, which were finalized in late December, revise the agency's application of the 1976 National Forest Management Act (NFMA).
The NMFA governs the management of the 155 national forests and 22 national grasslands - the Forest Service is responsible for managing these lands for multiple uses, including recreation, conservation and commercial use.
The Bush revisions grant federal land managers increased authority to approve logging, drilling, grazing and mining with less environmental review than currently required.
Administration officials said the new framework will ensure a balanced approach to managing the national forests and is a fair revision of a process that is currently too complicated and too expensive.
Officials said the new approach could slash costs some 30 percent and cut the process time down to two to three years, with an independent audit of the plan to ensure it is meeting goals and objectives.
These independent audits, to be conducted by agency officials and private firms, are at the center of what the Forest Service calls an "Environmental Management System," a corporate structure used by timber firms and other resource extraction companies.
Critics argue the regulation eliminates important wildlife protections, shuts out the public and does not require timber sales and other commercial activities to be consistent with forest management plans.
Trent Orr, an attorney with the environmental law firm Earthjustice, said the rules are so vague that they are virtually meaningless.
The regulations "aren't rules at all - they're more like suggestions," he said.
"They turn forest management to mush, mocking the intent of Congress and undermining public participation in the process," Orr added. "Agencies need leadership and clear guidance, not this wink and a nod that encourages the exploitation of the public's resources."
The plaintiffs say the regulations were crafted without appropriate environmental review and without fair public notice.
They contend the rule is illegal because it fails to include the environmental protection measures mandated by Congress in the National Forest Management Act and reverses wildlife protection without any sound scientific basis.
The regulations eliminate wildlife species viability standards contained in an earlier rule adopted by the Reagan administration, the plaintiffs say, and eliminates environmental impact analysis of forest plans, a requirement of the National Environmental Quality Act.
"This administration just went on a search and destroy mission for any environmental safeguard that might stand between the administration's industry donors and the public's trees," said Mike Anderson of The Wilderness Society.
Earthjustice filed the complaint on behalf of the coalition as a supplement to a lawsuit filed by the same plaintiffs in November against a related rule.
That rule, announced in September 2004, declared the National Forest Management Act rules finalized by the Clinton administration were no longer in effect.
The plaintiff in that case are Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, and Vermont Natural Resources Council.