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2nd Annual "Lovin' Livingston" Trail Cleanup Day
In early September, the BlueRibbon Coalition learned that Heartwood, a radical environmental organization, and the Forest Service were about to cut a deal. They were about to reach a settlement on a lawsuit filed earlier by Heartwood in the United States Court for the Southern District of Illinois. Under the proposed settlement, an existing rule would be immediately changed, with the changes taking effect immediately nationwide.
At the time we received a copy of the draft settlement, it was not final. The draft settlement sped to many national forests and districts. BlueRibbon learned that word was informally passed on to officials that the settlement was a done deal and that they should plan to follow the new rules.
Despite the immediate change in regulations, no notice or opportunity for public input preceded the settlement. It required the Forest Service to undertake formal rulemaking to make the agreement permanent, but the settlement required certain terms to be included in any final rule. The terms were to apply immediately, before the formal rulemaking process.
The settlement agreement required the agency to subject ten types of activities to notice, comment, and administrative appeal procedures. The "new" rule takes procedural flexibility away from local forest managers.
Four of the activities specified single out OHV use for special scrutiny. They involve marking and signing trails for OHV use, construction of new OHV routes and support facilities, upgrading or modifying OHV trails, and issuing special-use permits for certain OHV activities. No other recreation activity would be affected.
Three forest health management activities are affected by the settlement. These activities involve prescribed burning, creating or maintaining wildlife openings, and cutting trees for thinning or wildlife habitat over an area greater than five acres. This settlement would assure that forest health management will be more bureaucratic, costly, and take longer to apply on the ground.
Heartwood's lawsuit was filed in November, 1999. The Forest Service requested and received from the court ten different delays in which to file their response to the suit. Heartwood never objected to these delays. In fact, the agency never did file a response to the suit before the court. The court was simply presented with the settlement agreement.
Heartwood's lawsuit did not discuss OHV recreation. The settlement agreement's terms went far beyond the original lawsuit in micro-managing localized OHV activities.
We were dismayed at the prospect of new forest service rules, made behind closed doors, that would further confine the ability of local land managers to make on-the-ground decisions. The Shawnee Trail Conservancy, an Illinois based regional non-profit multi-use recreation group that supports all forms of recreation equally, was similarly upset. Most constructive trail management on the Shawnee National Forest in Southern Illinois, promised in the Forest Plan has been thwarted by radical green lawsuits and other obstructionist tactics. The Shawnee Trail Conservancy and BlueRibbon agreed to do what we could to obtain a voice in any settlement agreement.
Although the settlement agreement was accepted by the Court September 18, we took advantage of a window of opportunity allowed by procedural rules to file motions requesting our intervention and further inquiry. BlueRibbon and the Shawnee Trail Conservancy took this extraordinary last minute step because we strongly objected to the settlement's closed-door rulemaking. Public policy should flow from public input, not from the settlement of a single lawsuit.
We are dismayed that the Forest Service would be so willing to abandon proper rulemaking process and enter into a done-deal agreement that would further burden their local land managers. It is not hard to conclude that the settlement could have a profound effect on the agency's ability to manage for forest health. It would lengthen the time and increase the cost required to approve burning/thinning projects. We question why the agency would enter into such an agreement after this summer's catastrophic fires which dramatically illustrated the need for immediate forest health management.
Clyde Schmidt, Shawnee Trail Conservancy President said, "Local National Forest managers need sufficient flexibility for active management. The trend toward top-down micro-management needs to be stopped. The irony of this settlement agreement is that the lawsuit complains of the lack of public input into the specific items listed, yet the agreement was kept secret from the public."
Schmidt concluded, "The suit settlement is an example of what can happen when an agency and a special interest group go behind closed doors to cut a deal. The public is the loser. We hope our efforts will shed light on these important public issues."
At this time, our motions are pending before the court. We're appealing to everyone to support our extraordinary efforts to obtain a voice in the settlement of this lawsuit. We're acting on behalf of OHVers who may want to put up positive informational signs or enlarge a parking lot, on behalf of sportsmen who may support habitat improvements, on behalf of the American public who is concerned about forest health, and on behalf of the local manager who desperately needs some flexibility.
These legal actions are not cheap. We need your contributions to assist us in this effort. Please send a check today to BlueRibbon Coalition 9 Heartwood Settlement at 1540 N. Arthur, Pocatello, ID 83204.
--Adena Cook is Public Lands Director for the BlueRibbon Coalition. For questions or comments on this article, or on other Public Lands issues, she may be contacted at: BlueRibbon Coalition, P.O. Box 1427, Idaho Falls, ID, 83403. Phone: 208-524-3062, Fax:524-2836. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.