From: Jeff Barnard, Associated Press
Published October 3, 2005 12:00 AM

Forest Service Says Court Order Stops Capitol Christmas Tree, Other Projects

GRANTS PASS, Ore. — From cutting the Capitol Christmas tree to minor forest thinning, the U.S. Forest Service has put hundreds of small projects across the country on hold while it reviews a judge's ruling throwing out limits on the public's right to participate in forest decisions.


However, a forest protection group that won the ruling contended Friday that the Forest Service has gone far beyond the intent of the ruling and appears to be intentionally holding up trivial projects.


"The reason we sued over this, was this allowed them to put in a 250-acre clearcut, an off-road vehicle trail or a prescribed burn next to somebody's home and not allow them to comment on that," said Jim Bensman, forest watch coordinator for Heartwood in Alton, Ill.


Among the projects the Forest Service put on hold is cutting an 80-foot spruce in New Mexico to serve as a holiday tree on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol.


As long as no substantive objections are raised during a 30-day public comment period starting Monday, the tree could be cut and shipped to Washington in time, said James Payne, Forest Service southwest regional spokesman, from Phoenix.


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Matt Kenna, an attorney for the Western Environmental Law Center, said the plaintiffs have offered to work with the Forest Service to clarify what sorts of projects are covered by the ruling, but the Forest Service has refused.


The holdups stem from a July 2 ruling by U.S. District Judge James K. Singleton Jr. in California which found that the Forest Service was improperly approving projects without public comment or appeals under a process known as categorical exclusions.


The Justice Department has yet to decide whether to appeal, Forest Service spokeswoman Heidi Valetkevich said from Washington, D.C.


In the wake of a 2002 fire in Oregon that burned 500,000 acres of national forest, the president signed legislation and his administration revised rules to streamline environmental review of forest thinning projects to reduce wildfire danger. At the time, environmental groups complained it was a ploy to allow more logging.


Among the projects the Forest Service is holding up are the salvage of dead or dying trees, the logging of green trees, and small-scale oil and gas exploration.


All the projects will be reconsidered after the public has 30 days to comment. If any substantive objections are raised, the Forest Service has 45 days to consider an appeal.


Source: Associated Press


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