U.S. Forest Service Halts Activity Permits
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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
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A bitter legal dispute between environmentalists and the Bush administration has put a stop to hundreds of activities in national forests. Everything from mushroom-picking to hunting and logging has been affected, and so has the future of an 80-foot-tall Engelmann spruce tree in New Mexico. It's supposed to be the Christmas tree outside the Capitol Building in Washington, DC. NPR's Jeff Brady reports.
JEFF BRADY reporting:
The spruce is on public land, and the US Forest Service has to issue a permit to cut it down. Usually, that's not a big deal, but in September, the agency said it would have to hold a public comment period first because of a lawsuit that environmentalists won. If someone contests cutting the tree, then a decision could be delayed for more than four months, too late for this year's holidays. Matt Kenna is the lawyer for the environmental groups that sued the Forest Service. He says the agency is overreacting to the ruling and is essentially throwing a temper tantrum.
Mr. MATT KENNA (Lawyer): It's like you tell a toddler not to bang a family heirloom against the table, and so he says, `OK, I won't,' and then goes off and scribbles all over the walls instead.
BRADY: The case underlying this dispute has to do with logging on public lands and something called categorical exclusions. They allow the Forest Service to log some parcels under 250 acres without holding lengthy public comment periods. But environmentalists say the Forest Service under the Bush administration has abused categorical exclusions and approved projects the public has a right to comment on. A judge agreed. The Bush administration then directed the Forest Service to hold comment periods on every management decision but the simplest activities, like painting a ranger's station or mowing the lawn. Mark Rey is the Agriculture Department undersecretary responsible for the Forest Service.
Mr. MARK REY (Agriculture Department Undersecretary): What we have done, as best we can, is to accurately and completely respond to the court's order.
BRADY: Rey says the Forest Service risks a contempt-of-court citation if it doesn't strictly follow the ruling. As for those hurt by the change--mostly small-business owners that gather forest products and hold recreational events on public land--Rey says they should blame environmentalists who filed the lawsuit.
Mr. REY: The object lesson here is that when you use litigation as a tool, try not to create unintended consequences.
BRADY: But Matt Kenna--he's the lawyer for the environmental groups--says he never imagined the administration would respond like this. He suspects this is a strategic move designed to create a backlash. Then, Kenna says, there'll be calls for legislation in Congress that would prohibit environmentalists from challenging many Forest Service decisions.
Mr. KENNA: And that way, they wouldn't have to do comment and appeals on timber sales or anything else.
BRADY: No such legislation has been introduced so far. Meantime, both sides are asking the judge to change his decision. Kenna has requested a clarification instructing the Forest Service to stop holding comment periods for minor projects. The agency and the administration want the judge to put his ruling on hold while they appeal to a higher court. In the meantime, New Mexico is preparing to cut down that spruce tree next month, assuming the comment period passes without any objections. Jeff Brady, NPR News.
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