- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 11, 2005

A federal court ruling in favor of environmentalists is forcing the Forest Service to suspend more than 1,500 permits for activities ranging from fire prevention to Boy Scout meetings and also is threatening to delay cutting of the Capitol’s Christmas tree until after the new year.

A Forest Service regulation that allowed projects determined as having minimal environmental impact to be exempt from environmental studies and reviews was challenged by the Earth Island Institute.

Judge James K. Singleton of the Eastern District Court of California ruled in July against a project to remove charred and damaged trees, which could kindle a future fire, in the Sequoia National Forest.

The court said last month in a follow-up ruling that its decision in Earth Island Institute v. Ruthenbeck applies nationwide, rather than just to the local dispute.

As a result, the Forest Service immediately suspended all “categorical exclusions,” which approved the Sequoia project and had been used since 2002 to allow permits of numerous other activities, including trail upkeep at ski resorts and issuing outdoor guide permits.

“We are actively pursuing options in light of this nationwide ruling, including working with the Department of Justice to seek a stay of the ruling pending appeal,” Forest Service chief Dale Bosworth told employees in a Sept. 23 memo.

Court documents and Forest Service memos show that the permits immediately suspended include hundreds of projects nationwide for fire prevention on tens of thousands of acres; nearly 100 guide permits for hunting, fishing, horseback riding and fishing; 150 wildlife habitat projects; 165 permits to maintain camp grounds and trails; 15 ski area projects that may shut down the upcoming ski season in some areas; and 40 permits for family reunions and Boy Scout and Girl Scout activities.

Under the new requirement of public notices, comment periods and appeals, the tree selected from a New Mexico forest for this year’s Christmas display on the Capitol lawn would arrive around Valentine’s Day.

That prospect is frustrating New Mexico’s federal lawmakers who see Washington bureaucrats as depriving their state of a major annual civic honor.

“We need these reindeer games to stop so New Mexico can stay on schedule with its national holiday tree plans,” said Sen. Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico Republican.

“This ruling and the Forest Service response to it would be like the Grinch who stole Christmas for the many New Mexicans who have worked well over a year to prepare for the tree’s state tour and eventual trip to the nation’s capital, and for school kids and groups who are already creating ornaments to festoon the tree,” he said.

Mr. Domenici noted the seriousness of the court ruling’s implication on the far-reaching impacts and “consequences of some environmental lawsuits,” but he and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico Democrat, are asking Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns to intervene so the holiday conifer can be delivered on schedule.

“We are troubled that the interpretation of a decision made by a Federal District Court in California may adversely affect these plans. We urge you to redouble your efforts to address concerns regarding the procurement of this year’s Capitol Holiday Tree in order to resolve this situation in time for the tree’s tour around New Mexico,” the senators said last week in a letter to the federal officials.

The Earth Island Institute filed suit against the Forest Service in 2003 and argued that the agency was breaking the law by exempting some projects from public comment and appeals.

On July 2, the court ruled in favor of the California environmental group and held as “invalid” Forest Service regulations that exclude some projects from public notice, comment or appeal.

The September court decision ordered that all Forest Service projects and decisions since July 7 be suspended, and the federal agency must add a 105-day notice, comment and appeal period to the decision-making process.

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