Groups Want Forest Rules Overturned
SAN FRANCISCO Environmentalists asked a federal judge Wednesday to overturn the Bush administration's rules for managing the country's 155 national forests, arguing that the regulations illegally weaken protections for wilderness and wildlife.
Issued in December 2004, the rules represented a major shift in how the government balanced conservation and commercial interests in its 192 million acres of forest land. The management plan gave regional forest managers more discretion to approve logging, drilling and other projects without lengthy environmental studies.
Wednesday's hearing in federal court in San Francisco was the first since a coalition of environmental groups sued the Bush administration over the changes in February 2005, a month after they took effect.
Lawyers for the environmentalists told U.S. District Court Judge Phyllis Hamilton that the rules do not include the safeguards for endangered wildlife and forests that federal law requires. The rules allowed forest management plans to be revised without environmental studies and repealed a requirement for forests to maintain "viable" populations of native wildlife.
They also argued that the administration failed to study adequately the environmental impact of changing forest management practices and did not give the public enough opportunity to comment on the revisions.
"The government must involve the public when it radically changes the management standards of our forests," said Peter Frost, an attorney for the environmental groups, Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, and Vermont Natural Resources Council.
Administration officials said the rules allow forest managers to respond more quickly to wildfires, invasive species and other emerging threats. The change shortened the time to get revisions made from as many as nine years to as few as two or three.
In court Wednesday, Cynthia Huber, a Justice Department attorney, defended the Bush forest rules. She said the administration provided 90 days of public comment when it issued its draft proposal to overhaul forest management rules in December 2002.
Huber also argued that environmental studies should only be required for specific projects that could impact forests and wildlife, not when management plans are revised.
The plan "definitely does not undermine protections of the forests" and complies with federal environmental laws, Huber said.
Judge Hamilton did not indicate when she might rule.
The lawsuit is one of several ongoing legal challenges to Bush administration policies for overseeing national forests.
Twenty environmental groups and four states sued the U.S. Forest Service last October when it repealed the "Roadless Rule," a Clinton-era ban on road construction in nearly a third of the nation's forests. In September, a federal judge reinstated the ban, ruling the agency failed to conduct necessary environmental studies before making the change.
Source: Associated Press