updated 12/19/2003 11:23:59 AM ET 2003-12-19T16:23:59

The Forest Service is dropping a plan to ignore public comments from certain e-mail servers or on printed post cards.

The agency had said last spring that it intended to bar "duplicative materials" such as mass e-mails, form letters and printed post cards, on grounds that they added little to debate over forest decisions.

But civil liberties groups and activists on both sides of forest issues complained that the move would thwart public access to decision makers and diminish citizens' input on forest policy.

A spokeswoman said Thursday that the Forest Service never intended to shut the public out, but was abandoning the plan as a show of good faith.

"We were concerned that people misconstrued it -- that we didn't care about what they were saying when in fact that's not the reason why we put it there," said spokeswoman Heidi Valetkevitch.

"We were trying ... to make sure that decision-makers (get) as much information in as much detail as possible," she added. "You really can't get that from form letters as well as (you can) through detailed comments."

Civil libertarians and others who had opposed the e-mail blockade welcomed the reversal.

"We won!" said Cindy Cohn, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based group that promotes online civil liberties. The foundation had led a coalition of groups, including the American Lung Association, League of Conservation Voters and the National Wildlife Federation, in protest of the plan.

In a letter to the White House budget office, the groups urged the Bush administration to encourage all government agencies to accept and review all public comments related to government rule-making, regardless of whether they are sent by e-mail or on printed post cards.

Environmental groups and businesses increasingly encourage people who agree with their positions to contact the government through their Web sites. Many also use preprinted letters and cards so the public can easily express opinions to government.

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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