Judge tosses rules limiting comment on forest actions
A federal judge in Montana has tossed out 2003 Bush administration rules that environmental groups argued unreasonably hindered the public from commenting on and appealing decisions made by the U.S. Forest Service.
U.S. District Court Chief Judge Donald Molloy on Tuesday issued a nationwide injunction against Forest Service rules that required that the public provide "substantive" comments on proposed agency actions in order to have standing in the appeals process.
Molloy also struck down Forest Service regulations that allowed the agency to exempt small projects, called categorical exclusions, from environmental reviews.
The rulings came in response to a lawsuit filed by the Wilderness Society, American Wildlands and the Pacific Rivers Council against the Agriculture Department and the Forest Service.
"The regulations thrown out is very good news for public access," Kevin Mueller, executive director of the Utah Environmental Congress, said Wednesday. "The Bush regulations were absurd. Organizations like ours could pull it off and keep track of all the different Forest Service projects. But if you're a concerned citizen, it was was unrealistic. People would send in 10 to 20 pages of detailed comment on a logging project, only to find out that the Forest Service didn't consider them to be 'substantive,' and thus lose the right to appeal.
"The old regulations are back," Mueller added, "and they make a lot more sense."
Under those old rules, codified by Congress in 1991 under the Appeals Reform Act, the use of categorical exclusions was rejected. Molloy also found that "substantive comments" were not required as a prerequisite to filing an appeal. Members of the public simply need to show interest in a project to have standing.
Molloy's ruling echoed a California District Court's earlier repeal of the 2003 regulations. The Bush administration argued then, and again in this case, that those decisions were limited to their jurisdictions. Molloy disagreed.
"The Congress intended for parties to enjoy expansive rights to appeal Forest Service decisions; consequently, a nationwide injunction will not be more burdensome than necessary," he wrote in his Tuesday ruling.
Forest Service spokesman Dan Jiron said Tuesday that the agency was still analyzing the decision, but would comply with the court order. "If something else needs to be done, we will work with our lawyers," he added.
Timber industry officials were critical of the decision.
"You don't wait until the project is finished then say, 'I don't like it,' " said Ellen Engstedt, executive vice president of the Montana Wood Products Association.
The Associated Press contributed to this report