bisons-roam.jpgProtections were restored this week to 193 million acres of national forest by a federal court that struck down the Bush administration policy of relaxed restrictions on logging in 170 national forests and grasslands.

14 environmental groups filed the lawsuit claiming the action violated the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act. The decision means the Forest Service will have to reinstate rules protecting fish and wildlife in national forests from Alaska to Florida.

“Maintaining healthy, viable wildlife populations is the cornerstone of good land management,” said the Center for Biological Diversity’s Marc Fink, one of the attorneys in the case. “Hopefully we can finally close this chapter of the Forest Service and work together with the Obama administration to develop rules that protect our national forests.”

During the 1980s and ’90s, the Forest Service operated under nationwide regulations that provided mandatory protection for forest resources, including a requirement to ensure the viability of fish and wildlife species. These regulations governed all proposed projects — such as timber sales, livestock grazing, and road construction — throughout the national forest system. The Forest Service first attempted to weaken these nationwide regulations in 2000, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found that the agency had violated the National Environmental Policy Act.

Under the Bush administration, the Forest Service attempted to essentially remove all environmental safeguards for our national forests with a new rule in 2005. In March, 2007, however, that rule was found unlawful and enjoined nationwide by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The new 2008 rule was very similar to the 2005 rule, and continued to significantly weaken protection for forest resources, including the elimination of the longstanding requirement to ensure viable populations of fish and wildlife species.

The Forest Service’s position throughout the near decade of litigation over these rules has been that national regulations have no impact on the environment because they only establish procedures for later decisions. The court today again rejected this position, recognizing the importance of national regulations for all future projects and decisions affecting the national forest system.

“The courts have recognized, now for the third time, that the elimination and weakening of previous standards that protected our national forests for decades will of course result in increased environmental harm to fish, wildlife, and other natural resources in the national forest system,” said Fink.

(Read more from the San Francisco Chronicle)

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