Democratic News

When it comes to exercising poor judgment and creating bureaucratic train wrecks, the political appointees at FEMA seem to have greatly inspired their political counterparts at the Department of Agriculture.  

In an unnecessary and inappropriate response to a recent court ruling, the Forest Service has ordered the suspension of up to 1,500 permits, projects and contracts across the National Forest System.  That action could stop thousands of Americans from accessing their public lands and cause financial hardships for hundreds of small businesses that depend on our National Forests for legitimate purposes such as hunting and camping, hiking and biking, gathering food and fuel, forest thinning projects, even Christmas-tree cutting.

In the view of many, including the ranking members of the two Senate committees with jurisdiction over the Forest Service, this action has every appearance of being an attempt to make a political statement rather than to manage our National Forests rationally.   Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) in a letter today asked President Bush to tell his appointees overseeing the Forest Service to stop making mischief and get on with the serious business of managing the public’s land.

Here’s the letter:

 

October 18, 2005

 

The President
The White House

Washington, D.C.  20500

Dear Mr. President:

The USDA Forest Service recently ordered the suspension of over fifteen hundred permits, projects, and contracts across the National Forest System.  This will prevent thousands of people from accessing their public lands.  It will cause substantial economic losses to many small businesses that depend on the National Forests to guide hunters, gather food and fuel, access private property, and other activities.  This action was an unnecessary and inappropriate response to a recent court ruling (Earth Island Institute v. Ruthenbeck), and appears to be an attempt to make a political statement, rather than manage our National Forests rationally.  The current debacle on the ground in states like New Mexico seems to be the result of misguided political appointees in the Department of Agriculture who have the authority to prevent the hardship being visited on the public and local economies, but who are failing to use it.  We urge you to bring accountability within your Administration to this situation and to use the authority already in law to allow non-controversial forest activities to resume immediately.

This situation began when the Forest Service drafted illegal regulations in 2003 aimed at limiting the opportunities for the public to participate in National Forest decision making.  The Forest Service was clearly on notice that its proposal was illegal.  One of the disputed regulations codified a practice that a court had already struck down as defying common sense and the plain language of governing law.  The public record of comments on that rulemaking is replete with numerous official comments pointing out the illegal and inappropriate nature of the regulations.  Senior decision makers in the Department of Agriculture exercised poor judgment when they allowed this flawed rulemaking to proceed to conclusion without addressing these issues.  It should have been no surprise to anyone when a court recently invalidated those portions of the new regulations on the basis that they were arbitrary, capricious, or manifestly contrary to governing law.

Instead of having a reasonable plan to manage the aftermath of this predictable outcome, the Department of Agriculture then precipitated the current crisis on the ground.

 

  • Through the Forest Service and the Department of Justice, it could have asked the court to reinstate the previous set of regulations, which would have permitted at least the vast majority of the activities to go forward as planned.  But it refused to do so.  In fact, the Department did the opposite, by specifically asking the court to sever the invalidated portions of the regulations.

 

  • The Department could have used the emergency exemption authority that was explicitly upheld by the court to allow many of the activities to go forward.  It failed to do that.

 

  • The Department of Agriculture could have issued an interim rule allowing the vast majority of activities to go forward.  It failed to do that, too.

 

In fact, the Department of Agriculture has made matters considerably worse on the ground by being extraordinarily slow in dealing with the problems created by its flawed legal strategy.  It has been three months since the Forest Service and the responsible managers in the Department of Agriculture knew of the potential problems on the ground around the country.  Yet, the Department waited a month to request a stay of the court’s ruling.  In that time, not only could the courts already have granted a stay or clarification, but the Forest Service could have allowed a host of non-controversial projects to go forward even under the most stringent reading of the court’s decision.

Career employees of the Forest Service are frustrated that they cannot get authorization from their superiors to proceed with these non-controversial activities in a normal fashion.  Even the opposing litigants in the court case have offered to permit non-controversial projects to go forward.  Ironically, it would appear that the only parties opposing these normal, non-controversial activities are the persons whom you have appointed to oversee the Department and the Forest Service.  One is left with the impression that they think their political objectives would be advanced by causing maximum disruption to persons and local economies that rely on access to the National Forests for non-controversial activities such as hunting.

Excluding important segments of the public from entering the National Forests is not good agency management.  Nor is trying to exclude the public from the decision making processes governing the National Forests.  The Department has ample authority to allow many, if not all, of the non-controversial projects currently being held up to go forward.  We urge you to put an end to what is in effect a lock-out of important users of the National Forests, by directing your appointees in the Department and the Forest Service to use their existing authorities to fix the serious problems they have created.

 
Sincerely,

 
Jeff Bingaman                                                                          Tom Harkin
Ranking Member                                                                      Ranking Member
Committee on Energy and Natural Resources                             Committee on Agriculture

United States Senate                                                                United States Senate