Judge Suspends Administration Rules For Managing Forests

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer

The ruling by Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California suspends the forest rules the administration adopted on Jan. 5, 2005. Hamilton said the government did not adequately assess the policy's impact on wildlife and the environment and did not give sufficient public notice of the "paradigm shift" that the rule put in place.

The judge ordered the Forest Service to suspend its 2005 rule and subject it to a new round of analysis, taking into account the environmental protections and public participation requirements in the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Administrative Procedures Act.

The battle between environmental groups and the administration over the forest rules has raged for several years. It centers on changes to environmental protections that had been in place since the Reagan administration. Under the old policy, the government had to maintain viable populations of native wildlife in forests and monitor some populations regularly, while limiting logging and drilling for oil and gas.

The new rule -- which gave economic activities as high a priority as maintaining the forest's ecological health -- made it easier to conduct drilling and logging in national forests while weakening protections for native fish and wildlife. It also accelerated the process for approving forest management plans, which can drag on for as long as seven years, thereby cutting planning costs.

Environmental groups hailed yesterday's decision as a major victory. They said it will force the Bush administration to rethink the way it oversees forests and grasslands, which make up 8 percent of the country's land.

"The national forest planning rules are like the Constitution for our national forests, and the Bush administration tried to throw out the Bill of Rights," said Earthjustice lawyer Trent Orr, who argued the case before the court on behalf of Defenders of Wildlife, the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club and the Vermont Natural Resources Council.

Forest Service spokeswoman Allison Stewart said the agency has not decided whether to appeal the decision. She noted that "presented with similar circumstances" in unrelated cases, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit and the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama recently ruled that the administration had met its obligations under the Endangered Species Act and Environmental Policy Act, respectively.

"The federal government is carefully reviewing today's decision," she said.

Defenders of Wildlife staff attorney Mike Leahy, who worked on yesterday's case, said the decisions in the 10th Circuit and in Alabama did not address whether the 2005 rule was legal.

"You can't toss out decades of protections for wildlife and natural resources without considering the consequences, and you can't spring major changes in how public lands will be managed on the public without giving people a chance to provide input," Leahy said. "That is what the Bush administration did, and the court ruled it was illegal."