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Judge tosses out Bush's national forest rules

Regulations did not include environmental reviews or public comment, she says.

March 31, 2007|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

A federal judge on Friday overturned Bush administration regulations for national forests that critics said expedited logging and energy exploration, weakened wildlife protection, and shut the public out of forest planning.

U.S. Northern District Court Judge Phyllis Hamilton, based in San Francisco, found that because U.S. Forest Service officials had not conducted required environmental impact reviews of their new policies, nor allowed public comment on "clearly controversial" changes, they should be invalidated.

If the Forest Service wants to implement the regulations, it must first conduct such reviews, the judge ruled. She declined to say which past regulations should govern forest planning until then.

Forestry officials in 2005 invalidated 1982 standards adopted under President Reagan that protected more than 400 wildlife species and required comprehensive environmental review and public comment on forest management plans. In 2001, Bush appointees refused to implement revised forest management rules drawn up under President Clinton.

Forest Service spokesman Joseph Walsh on Friday declined to answer questions, including whether the decision would be appealed. Reading a statement, he said, "The federal government is carefully reviewing today's decision."

He noted that "presented with similar circumstances," two other federal judges in the last month had agreed with Forest Service officials on how endangered species and environmental planning should be handled.

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

Environmentalists said they were thrilled by the ruling, although they expressed some concern that forest policy was being left in limbo.

"I think it's a tremendous decision that vindicates the public's right to participate in national forest management," Preso said.

When they made the changes in 2005, Forest Service officials said they were streamlining wasteful and time-consuming paperwork and gaining the ability to respond quickly to evolving forest conditions and scientific research.

But Sierra Club forest policy specialist Sean Cosgrove said grizzly bears, salmon, spotted owls and other imperiled wildlife populations would have lost key protections if the new rules had been upheld.

The Sierra Club and numerous other environmental groups filed lawsuits to undo the rules, and the judge decided them jointly.

"The Bush administration's rules would have undone 20 years of protections for wildlife and clean water," Cosgrove said. "This ruling is a huge victory for all Americans who hunt, fish and enjoy our national forests."

janet.wilson@latimes.com

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