Politics & Government

Court to decide when public lands management can be challenged

WASHINGTON -- A well-seasoned Sequoia National Forest logging dispute comes to a boil Wednesday, as the Supreme Court considers when activists can challenge the management of federal lands.

In one of the year's most anticipated environmental cases, the court could either narrow or expand the public's power over the Forest Service. Consequently, everyone from homebuilders to California Attorney General Jerry Brown is weighing in.

"This case is about the most significant environmental policy issue to be heard by the Supreme Court in a long time," Kernville resident Ara Marderosian declared Tuesday.

Marderosian is executive director of Sequoia ForestKeeper, one of several environmental groups clashing with the Forest Service over Sierra Nevada land management.

The environmentalists, joined by the state of California, complain that the Bush administration shields public land decisions from oversight. Through the case called Summers v. Earth Island Institute, they are challenging rules that exempt certain Forest Service decisions from standard public comment and administrative appeal procedures.

"These (Forest Service) rules ... have worked to foreclose all public review, comment and appeal of certain timber sales and logging projects," Brown declared in a legal brief.

But while Brown denounced the Bush administration for trying to "radically alter" legal rules, farmers, loggers and homebuilders are urging the high court to insulate some public land decisions from broad attack.

"Our members invest substantial resources to plan for, and comply with, a known set of regulations," the California Forestry Association noted. "When non-regulated third parties challenge those regulations ... (and) prevail, district courts too frequently issue nationwide injunctions against the rule."

The Sacramento-based forestry group joined the National Association of Home Builders, the American Farm Bureau Federation and others in a friend-of-the-court brief, one of five filed in Summers v. Earth Island Institute.

Other cases this year have attracted more kibitzers. On Monday, for instance, the court considered a cigarette advertising case for which 13 amicus briefs were filed. Still, the myriad outside filings reflect high stakes.

"In one sense, this is really an arcane case that only a law professor can love," said Holly Doremus, a law professor at the University of California at Davis and U.C. Berkeley, "but it does have real-world implications, in the ability of people outside the Forest Service to oversee Forest Service management."

The Supreme Court case began smoldering in the summer of 2002, when a Sequoia National Forest campfire blew out of control. The resulting wildlife burned 150,700 acres, killing up to 80 percent of the trees in some areas. The next year, Forest Service officials offered a 238-acre area called Burnt Ridge for salvage logging.

Officials declared that timber projects less than 250 acres -- as well as forest thinning up to 1,000 acres -- were too small to need a standard environmental assessment. Officials further determined this meant there would be no public comment or appeal process.

Environmentalists sued, and the Forest Service withdrew its Burnt Ridge plans. The lawsuit continues, though; now, as a challenge to the overall Forest Service policy excluding some projects from public comment and appeals.

Two crucial legal principles are in question: standing and ripeness. The former determines who can sue, and the latter determines when suits can be brought.

The Bush administration argues environmentalists lack standing to sue since the timber sale that incited their complaint has been resolved. The administration contends environmentalists must wait until another specific timber project comes along to complain about.

Environmentalists take a broader view, insisting their underlying complaint is with the Forest Service rules limiting public comment and appeal.

"Victory," Marderosian said," would confirm our lower court wins that re-established the public's right to participate in management of public lands -- lands owned by the people."