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Saturday, March 31, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Forest rules were illegally changed, judge says

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — A federal district judge ruled Friday that the Bush administration illegally rewrote rules for managing 192 million acres of federally owned forests and grasslands in 2005 and must consider the environmental impact of its plan before offering another policy blueprint.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton in San Francisco suspends the forest rules the administration adopted 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.

The judge ordered the Forest Service to suspend its 2005 rule and subject it to a new round of analysis, taking into account 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 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.

Environmental groups hailed the decision Friday 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 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and a U.S. District Court in Alabama recently ruled that the administration had met its obligations under the Endangered Species Act and Environmental Policy Act, respectively.

But Tim Preso of Earthjustice, one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit decided Friday, said the 10th Circuit and Alabama decisions involved different rules in specific forests, not policies governing the nation's entire 192 million-acre forest system.

Preso's comment was reported by the Los Angeles Times.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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