updated 12/6/2007 11:07:43 AM ET 2007-12-06T16:07:43

A federal appeals court on Wednesday blocked a Bush administration rule that allowed logging and burning projects in national forests without first analyzing their effects on the environment.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the U.S. Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it issued the 2003 rule, which was billed as a way to reduce wildfires.

As part of the "Healthy Forests Initiative," the "hazardous fuels reduction" rule exempted logging projects up to 1,000 acres and prescribed forest burns up to 4,500 acres from environmental review.

The court said the agency's failure to properly analyze the rule caused "irreparable injury" by allowing more than 1.2 million acres of national forest land to be logged and burned each year without studying the ecological impacts.

The three-judge panel ruled that the Forest Service can no longer exempt such projects from environmental analysis until the rule itself can be properly analyzed.

The San Francisco-based appeals court sided with the Sierra Club and Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign, which sued the Forest Service and Department of Agriculture in 2004.

Wednesday's decision overturns a lower court ruling that favored the administration.

"This ruling will help ensure that vast swaths of our national forests are not logged without environmental reviews under the guise of forest management or fuel suppression," said Eric Huber, an attorney for the San Francisco-based Sierra Club.

The U.S. Department of Justice, which represented the federal agencies, is reviewing the court's opinion and will decide whether to appeal, said David Shelledy, civil division chief of the U.S. Attorney's office in Sacramento.

Forest Service spokesman Joe Walsh said the agency believes the rule is a "useful tool," but will comply with the court's injunction.

The policy change was made following the 2000 fire season, one of the worst in 50 years, when 123,000 fires scorched more than 8.4 million acres. Officials said the exemption would make it easier and faster to clear plants, shrubs and trees that could ignite or fuel wildfires.

But conservationists opposed the rule, saying it allowed national forest land to be logged and burned with minimal oversight and analysis.

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