A California district judge issued a major blow to the Bush administration’s 2005 changes to the National Forest Management Act last week, ruling that the administration illegally rewrote the rules for managing 192 million acres of federally owned forests and grasslands. On March 30, District Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton found that the government did not adequately assess the impacts the rule changes would have on wildlife and the environment and did not give sufficient public notice of the “paradigm shift” that the new rules put in place.
“Is anyone really surprised that the Bush administration illegally adopted wholesale changes to national forest planning regulations that put logging and oil and gas development above clean water, healthy soils and ensuring the long-term survival of wildlife?” asks Matthew Koehler, executive director of the Missoula-based WildWest Institute, one of the conservation groups listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Koehler says Hamilton’s ruling is an affirmation of the separation of powers doctrine: “Thankfully the judicial branch of our government can still provide the needed checks-and-balances to the Bush administration’s illegal policies.”
“The practical effect of this ruling is that those plans that are currently undergoing revision cannot be completed under the new rule,” says Peter Frost of the Western Environmental Law Center, an attorney who worked on the case.
According to Frost, that means all forests will have to reinstate the previous forest plans (most of which were written during the Reagan era).
“The good thing is that most of [the previous forest plans] have protective standards for wildlife,” Frost says.
But U.S. Forest Service officials say it’s not yet clear how the ruling will affect planning already underway in Region 1, which includes Lolo, Kootenai, Bitterroot and Flathead National Forests. Region 1 spokesperson Paula Nelson said the nearly completed draft forest plans for those areas will be put on hold while the agency’s legal experts examine the judge’s decision. The Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest is also in the process of drafting a new forest plan but is doing so under the 1982 planning rules and therefore is not affected by the ruling.