Attorneys for the U.S. Forest Service and Wildlands CPR—a Missoula-based environmental group—are holding their breath this week as U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy weighs a final decision in a lawsuit concerning the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
“It’s been a long haul,” says Sarah Peters, legal liason for Wildlands CPR. “We think he’ll rule in our favor.”
At the heart of the matter is a 2006 lawsuit filed by the Western Environmental Law Center on behalf of Wildlands CPR, which was trying to get documents from some 84 national forests relating to ATV and off-road vehicle use. According to the plaintiffs, a victory would send a message to federal agencies that they cannot put legal or financial barriers in the way of people trying to gain public information.
Wildlands CPR had first tried going through regular channels. But “after six months of getting stone-walled by the Forest Service,” recounts lead plaintiff attorney David Bahr, “we finally filed suit.”
The group says it has now gotten most of the documents it requested. What it hasn’t gotten, however, is compensation from the Forest Service for the attorney fees and processing fees incurred in the legal battle. These types of fees, they argue, can discourage groups from trying to get documents in the first place.
The Forest Service counters that it doesn’t have to pay the fees because of ambiguities in existing case law. U.S. Attorney Mark Smith, representing the agency, declined to comment on the case. But Molloy’s tone at last week’s hearing indicated he was none too pleased with the Forest Service’s stance.
“You sound like Dick Cheney,” Molloy said to Smith at one point. “You’re reading this [law] like, ‘How can we avoid producing this [information]?’ That’s absurd.”
A decision in the matter is expected in the coming weeks.