A national environmental group is going to court trying to force the government to release documents and records relating to contacts between the timber industry and Agriculture Department officials. At issue is how much influence the industry wielded over a new set of national forest planning regulations proposed by the Bush administration.Conservation advocates say the new rules reflect a timber industry wish list, demoting the priority the U.S. Forest Service places on ecological sustainability; eliminating required protections for wildlife; eliminating scientific oversight of agency actions; and reducing mandatory standards for forest management.In its lawsuit, Defenders of Wildlife claims the Bush administration is illegally blocking a request made under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) five months ago. The group is trying to determine what role the timber industry played in formulating the draft regulations.Conservation activists say federal agencies like the Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have become less responsive to FOIA requests under the Bush administration.Colorado Wild activist Rocky Smith says a memo authorized by Attorney General John Ashcroft is at the heart of those concerns. "It’s pretty scary," Smith says. "It basically says that agencies should look for reasons not to comply with FOIA requests." That runs counter the intent of the Freedom of Information Act, which is to ease public access to government information, Smith says."The Bush administration is stonewalling our request for information on why they suspended and began rewriting the rules for managing national forests, forcing us to go to court to pry these records loose," says Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife."Just as the administration is withholding documents on the Cheney Energy Task Force and its meetings with energy companies, they are withholding information about national forest regulation activities and meetings," Schlickeisen adds.Upon taking office, the Bush administration suspended all new federal regulations that had not yet taken effect, including national forest planning rules that provide the underlying administrative framework for a variety of management activities like forest plan revisions.The current regulations date back to 1982. The update proposed by the Clinton administration would have placed a higher priority on ecosystem sustainability and highlighted other environmental concerns. Timber industry officials were not the only ones to complain. A comment letter from the National Ski Areas Association also blasted the agency for supposedly veering from its multiple use mandate in favor of ecosystem protection."I think it’s safe to say the timber industry has had more than it’s share of influence," says Smith, who has been reviewing Forest Service environmental documents for many years. Smith says it could take a few years before the effects of any such changes are felt in Colorado, which is not a huge timber producing state in any case.Smith says the regulatory ping-pong game makes it challenging for the Forest Service to develop sustainable, long-term natural resource policies. Land management decisions should be based on sound science and the public interest rather than shifting with the political winds, he adds."But I guess that just American government at work," he concludes.In a related story, a Senate committee recently released a report that accuses the Bush camp of displaying a "a pre-determined hostility" toward environmental regulations. The report charges the administration with making choices of "questionable legality" in suspending hundreds of regulations on the day of the new president’s inauguration.Many of the suspended regulations were subjected to extensive scientific study and public comment, while the reviews ordered by the Bush administration in most cases did not include any opportunity for public participation and comment, according to the report.According to the Environmental News Service, Bush administration officials said Senate Democrats timed the report to coincide with recent mid-term elections. The report is available at http://www.senate.gov/~gov_affairs/envrollbacksreport.pdf. Other documents related to the lawsuit can be viewed at http://www.SaveNationalForests.Org
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