The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals last week denied Bitterroot National Forest Supervisor Dave Bull’s request to dismiss a case that alleges he violated three conservationist’s First Amendment rights when he had them escorted out of a press conference in 2005.
The three-judge federal panel ruled in the case of Brandborg v. Bull that, while the Forest Service is clearly permitted to limit who can speak at a public meeting, Bull based his exclusion upon the conservationists’ perspectives, an unlawful act of viewpoint discrimination. In addition, armed guards were directed to remove the longtime conservationists from the press conference.
The three-judge panel sent the case back to Judge Donald Molloy’s District Court in Missoula, for a hearing to resolve whether excluding the men from the event violated their free speech rights.
The booted conference-goers, all members of the forest watchdog group Friends of the Bitterroot (FOB), were Stewart Brandborg, Larry Campbell and Jim Miller, the organization’s president.
The conference had been held to announce the Bitterroot National Forest (BNF) “Middle East Fork Hazardous Fuels Reduction Project,” the first plan in the nation to use President Bush’s Healthy Forest Restoration Act to “streamline” the project’s approval process by limiting public comment. The BNF’s answer to reducing hazardous fuels in the valley was to log significant swaths of remote—and unrelated—old growth trees.
While the conservationists were kicked out of the press conference, local residents who were supportive of the plan were invited in. But supporters were hardly in the majority. According to Forest Service statistics, 98 percent of the more than 10,000 Americans commenting on the plan opposed the BNF’s “preferred alternative” for the Bitterroot, calling instead for a plan that would thin trees near homes—but leave the century-old trees standing.
“In my 60 years of conservation work, I have never been barred from an agency’s public press conference,” said octogenarian Brandborg. “Most unconscionable was the implication of this action that I, and or my associates, might commit some kind of violent act.”