Attorneys for Defenders of Wildlife filed suit in United States District Court in Washington demanding access to Department of Agriculture records relating to the administration's development of a set of stripped-down rules. The group said the rules were virtually a timber industry "wish list" aimed at scuttling existing environmental laws.
"The Bush administration is stonewalling our request for information on why they suspended and began rewriting the rules for managing national forests, forcing us to go to court to pry these records loose," said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of the Washington-based environmental group.
"Just as the administration is withholding documents on the Cheney Energy Task Force and its meetings with energy companies, they are withholding information about national forest regulation activities and meetings."
The White House has moved aggressively to increase the amount of federal forest that is "treated," or thinned out in order to reduce the risk of wildfire feeding on drought-stricken and overgrown thickets of small trees and brush.
Environmentalists, who have been accused of using environmental laws to challenge and sidetrack treatment plans, have been suspicious that their perpetual nemesis, the timber industry, would use the urgency of the wildfire threat to open the door to increased logging in old-growth forests.
In these forests, larger trees pose less of a fire hazard but are more commercially desirable.
The lawsuit takes a tack similar to efforts earlier this year to prod the White House into releasing documents pertaining to the development of a national energy plan by a task force headed by Vice President Dick Cheney.
Critics of the plan have alleged that the input to the task force came virtually exclusively from energy executives who wanted to open up more federal lands to oil-and-gas development.
According to the Defenders of Wildlife, members of the group somehow obtained a leaked copy of a September draft of the administration's proposed forest regulations. They concluded that they made forest plans required by the National Forest Management Act since 1976 "meaningless," because Forest Service managers would have virtually unchecked authority to exempt areas from the plans.
"The regulations further make forest plans irrelevant by explicitly allowing logging anywhere in the forest, even in areas where it is prohibited by the forest plan," the organization said in a report on the proposed new rules.
"The regulations apply a standard timber industry loophole to allow any sort of logging, just about anywhere, as long as it has a dual purpose such as 'salvaging' dead or dying trees, opening forests for wildlife, removing flammable fuels, or creating fuel breaks devoid of trees."