The West’s national forests remain in legal limbo. For four years, the U.S. Forest Service has been trying to overhaul the rules that govern the creation of forest plans, the “blueprints” that describe how each forest will be managed and protected. And for the past two years, the process has been locked in federal court.
The Justice Department
recently dropped its appeal of a March 2007 ruling that overturned
the Forest Service’s controversial 2005 forest planning
rules. Federal agencies and environmental groups are now trying to
figure out what the administration’s decision means for over
193 million acres of national forest and grasslands.
month after the Forest Service rolled out the 2005 rules in
September 2004, environmental groups filed suit, claiming that the
agency had removed environmental protections without considering
the effects on endangered species or providing for public comment.
In March 2007, U.S. District Court Judge Phyllis Hamilton
ruled that the agency must comply with the National Environmental
Policy Act and analyze the environmental impacts of the 2005 rules.
The Justice Department quickly appealed, but has now decided that
it’s less costly and time-consuming to drop its appeal.
The Forest Service is not yet sure how this will affect
its efforts to revise the planning rules, says Janelle Smith,
spokeswoman for the Rocky Mountain Region. The agency has already
released a draft of its 2007 rules, which, according to Bob Dreher,
vice president for conservation law with Defenders of Wildlife, are
virtually identical to their predecessors and will most likely face
more lawsuits. Dreher calls the dropped appeal a small but
important concession with regard to implementing forest policy,
but, he says, “The battle is by no means over.”
Those 2007 rules do attempt to comply with Judge
Hamilton’s ruling, says Martin Nie, associate professor of
natural resource policy at the University of Montana, although some
sections still may violate the National Environmental Policy Act.
For now, forest planning continues in disarray. “No one is
happy,” Nie says. “And meanwhile, we still don’t
have a plan.”