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Judge kills Forest Service limit on appeals

A federal judge struck down regulations that limited the public’s ability to challenge U.S. Forest Service decisions on timber sales and other projects.

The judge issued an injunction Monday against a rule that required people to specify objections to Forest Service projects while they are under consideration, or forfeit the right to challenge them later. The injunction applies nationwide.

Lawyer Doug Honnold, who represented environmental groups in the case, said Tuesday the rule was a problem because people might not know a project threatened their interests until after the agency’s deadline.

“Whether you’re a hunter, hiker or neighboring landowner, the Bush rule could cut you out of the process,” said Honnold, of Earthjustice.

A timber industry group defended the rule Tuesday.

“You don’t wait until the process is finished and then say, ’I don’t like it,”’ said Ellen Engstedt, executive vice president of the Montana Wood Products Association.

The judge also struck down a rule that exempted some Forest Service projects from requirements for environmental analyses, and another rule that allowed the government to bypass public involvement in national forest management by having the agriculture secretary or undersecretary sign decisions on agency projects.

U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy of Missoula agreed with federal court decisions in California that invalidated those two rules earlier. He said Congress wants the public to have wide rights to appeal Forest Service decisions.

The Bush administration issued the rules in 2003. The Forest Service had said they would help hasten removal of trees from overgrown forests that pose a wildfire hazard.

Agency spokesman Dan Jiron said officials had not read the judge’s decision. “We’ll comply with court orders and if something else needs to be done, we will work with our lawyers,” Jiron said.

The lawsuit was brought by The Wilderness Society, American Wildlands and the Pacific Rivers Council against Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, Undersecretary Mark Rey and Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth.