Forest Service playing politics with permits

Forest Service playing politics with permits

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So now, even the cutting of the national Christmas tree needs a 30-day comment period.

Talk about overkill!

Does the Forest Service really need to ramp up the red tape and cancel footraces and movie-making on national forest lands just because it lost a court case over clearcuts and road-building?

Such an overreaction strikes us as not only unnecessary but immature, much like the boy in a game of pickup football who takes his ball and goes home when he doesn't get his way.

In this case, though, it's not a game the Forest Service is playing. People spend real money to stage events like races, movie shoots and weddings in the national forest. To pull their permits at the last minute because of what appears to be a politically motivated directive out of Washington, D.C., is an abuse of power that speaks directly to why more and more people don't trust their federal government to do the right thing.

The case has its roots in a congressional effort to streamline the approval process for what the Forest Service has considered minor projects. Congress set up certain "categorical exclusions" to the public comment and appeals process so that the Forest Service could focus on bigger projects that do justify more intensive scrutiny.

But some environmental groups think the Forest Service should still open some "ground-disturbing" projects, such as thinning and building trails for off-road vehicles, to a 30-day public comment period.

A federal judge in California agreed with the environmentalists and said his ruling applied nationwide. He specifically exempted routine maintenance but didn't say anything about footraces or weddings.

The plaintiffs have offered to meet with the Forest Service to clarify which activities on national forest lands do and don't need a 30-day public comment period.

Instead, more than three months after the ruling, the Forest Service has refused to negotiate and instead yanked permits for more than 1,400 activities nationwide, ground-disturbing or otherwise, When asked why, officials contend their reading of the ruling gives them no choice.

The environmental groups have a more plausible explanation: The Forest Service is looking to create an administrative "train wreck" by holding up trivial projects, thus undermining the ruling.

That train wreck has real victims. A science fiction movie scheduled to be filmed in Flagstaff and on the Peaks will now be shot in Williams. And were it not for the Flagstaff Nordic Center stepping in at the last moment, hundreds of runners from throughout the Southwest who are arriving Saturday for the Soulstice Mountain Trail Race would have been out of luck.

We don't necessarily agree with the environmentalists' position or the decision in their favor. But we fail to see how any reasonable interpretation of the ruling supports such a draconian response or the refusal to negotiate a clarification.

That leaves us with an explanation that has become all too common with this administration: the elevation of hardball, partisan politics over negotiated compromise. If the issue were life or death or war and peace, maybe compromise wouldn't be appropriate. But a single Christmas tree or a footrace? Such a position doesn't pass the straight-face test.

The national forests belong to the people. If the Forest Service is going to take its ball and go home, maybe it shouldn't be in the game at all. We've called in the past and we'll renew the call here for the formation of a local forest council to rein in such abuses of power. How many more examples are needed before local leaders get the message?


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