Judge: Administration suppressed scientists' views on forest plan

Associated Press

SEATTLE -

In his ruling late Friday, U.S. District Judge Ricardo S. Martinez struck down the administration's change to the forest plan, which governs logging on 24 million acres of federal lands in Washington, Oregon and Northern California.

"Here, the dissenting views of responsible scientists were neither set forth in substance, nor their import discussed," as required by the National Environmental Policy Act, Martinez wrote.

Under the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan's Aquatic Conservation Strategy, before federal agencies could approve logging, road-building or other projects, they had to determine that the projects would not harm watersheds. That wording, designed to protect salmon, had held up timber activities on 4 million acres designated for logging.

In March 2004, the Bush administration dropped the wording at the request of the timber industry.

Several U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists who worked on the original Northwest Forest Plan objected, saying the change would "remove or weaken several key conservation provisions for aquatic species" and "is of great concern to us."

But such comments were not included in the environmental impact statement prepared in conjunction with the wording change, Martinez said. Instead, some of the objections were "buried in the appendices as a summary of public comments" but were not seriously weighed by the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management.
In one appendix, the administration misrepresented the views of the scientists who drafted the original wording by saying that they did not intend for logging projects to be evaluated for their impact on the watershed, the judge said.

Environmentalists and fishing groups who sued over the wording change were thrilled.

"The timber industry went to the Bush administration with demands to increase logging, and the Bush administration went ahead and did that," Earthjustice lawyer Patti Goldman said Monday. "The lesson is that they can't cut corners on environmental protection just because they want to cut more logs. They have to heed the science and protect the forest for all users."

Chris West, a vice president of the American Forest Research Council in Portland, Ore., which intervened in the lawsuit, said the ruling would require unnecessary, watershed-level studies rather than simply evaluating what effect the projects have in their vicinity.

"We're going to be wasting the taxpayers' money on paperwork for bureaucracy's sake," he said.

Last year, U.S. Magistrate Judge Mary Alice Theiler recommended that Martinez invalidate the wording change because administration officials had failed to give a rational basis for it. Martinez agreed, but disagreed with her finding that the environmental impact statement "did not fail to disclose dissenting opinions."

Forest Service spokesman Tom Knappenberger on Monday said only that the agency is reviewing the ruling.
The ruling was one of two that rebuked the Bush administration's forest policies on Friday. A federal judge in San Francisco tossed out administration rules that gave national forest managers more discretion to approve logging and other commercial projects without lengthy environmental reviews.