WASHINGTON (April 18, 2003 3:05 p.m. EDT) - The Bush administration is
quietly reshaping environmental policy to enhance logging and other development
by settling a series of lawsuits, many of them filed by industry groups.
As a result of settlements, the administration has announced plans to remove
wilderness protections for millions of acres in Utah, has agreed to review
protections for endangered species such as salmon and the northern spotted owl,
has reversed a Clinton-era ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton
national parks and has softened rules on logging.
None of the decisions were subject to prior public comment or congressional
"I don't know if it's a policy, but it's definitely a pattern," said Kristen
Boyles, a lawyer for the environmental group Earthjustice who has frequently
battled the Bush administration in court.
"The industry sues and then the current administration does a poor job of
defending itself or comes to a sweetheart settlement," Boyles said.
Critics call it "sue and settle," leaving few fingerprints as officials move to
roll back environmental protections.
Last month, several environmental groups filed a federal lawsuit claiming the
administration and the timber industry have been holding secret talks to
undermine the Northwest Forest Plan. The suit seeks access to settlement
documents under the Freedom of Information Act.
Mark Rey, the Agriculture undersecretary who directs forest policy, denies any
attempt to orchestrate legal challenges.
"No litigation is friendly," he said.
But critics suggest the administration is using the lawsuit settlements as an
end-run around Congress, which has blocked some parts of the Bush agenda,
including efforts to open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil
drilling and the Healthy Forests Initiative, which would increase logging in
national forests to reduce the risk of wildfires.
"In the guise of settling lawsuits, federal officials have retired to the back
room to work out deals that sacrifice our old-growth forests, salmon and clean
water for the sake of clearcutting our public lands," said Patti Goldman of
Earthjustice, one of the plaintiffs in the freedom of information case.
In recent weeks, the administration has settled several industry challenges to
the Northwest Forest Plan, which governs logging and habitat protection for
salmon and other threatened species. Among other actions, the government agreed
to review Endangered Species Act protections for the northern spotted owl and
marbled murrelet, birds that are icons of the Northwest timber wars. In a
separate action, officials have proposed weakening some salmon protections to
The National Park Service also has allowed snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand
Teton national parks, and the Agriculture Department declined to defend the "roadless"
rule, a Clinton-era policy that blocks road-building in remote forest areas.
Earlier this month the Interior Department announced that in response to a
lawsuit it intends to halt all reviews of its Western land holdings for new
wilderness protection and to withdraw that protected status from some 3 million
acres in Utah. That settlement still must be approved by a federal judge.
Rey, a former timber industry lobbyist, said officials are doing nothing the
Clinton administration didn't do in the 1990s.
"I understand why they're unhappy," Rey said of critics, "but their unhappiness
needs to be measured in balance to the situation they enjoyed when people who
agreed with them more often than not were in this position."
Rey said the Clinton administration encouraged friendly suits from
environmentalists to block logging in Northwest forests, prevent road-building
and stop development on vast wilderness areas controlled by the Bureau of Land
Environmentalists deny that claim.
"I do not know of any instance where the Clinton administration said, 'You sue
us, and we'll settle and we'll stop a timber sale.' It hasn't happened in this
office," said Boyles of Earthjustice.
Each of the settlements the Bush administration agrees to is presented to a
judge and will be subject to public comment. Rey said they will be judged on
"Nobody gets frozen out of our actions because the public ultimately is going to
get a chance to comment. If they are dissatisfied, they will get their own
opportunity to sue," Rey said.
But environmental groups call the comment period a formality, which rarely
produces any substantive change in the settlement.
Chris West of the American Forest Resource Council, a Portland, Ore.-based
timber group which has filed several of the lawsuits, denied any collusion in
He said Bush is "just trying to put some balance into how these forests are
managed," noting that logging in the Northwest has dropped in the past decade to
less than a third of the volume recommended by the Northwest Forest Plan.