Two recreational access advocacy organizations have succeeded in overturning a settlement agreement between Heartwood, Inc. and the U.S. Forest Service. The agreement, adopted in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois on September 18, 2000, would have reversed prior Forest Service regulations and created new procedural requirements affecting 10 types of activities.
Shortly after the original agreement was signed and approved by the court, the Shawnee Trail Conservancy and BlueRibbon Coalition moved to intervene in the action and asked the court to set aside its judgment, contending the Forest Service changed the regulations through a closed-door settlement agreement without undertaking the legally required public rulemaking process. On February 6, 2001, Judge James L. Foreman agreed with the recreational groups and vacated the previously entered judgment.
“We are pleasantly surprised by this outcome,” said Paul Turcke, a Boise, Idaho lawyer who represented the recreational groups. “While it is extremely difficult to stop a government agency from settling a lawsuit, the court recognized that this agreement crossed the line.
“Just a few years earlier, the Forest Service had successfully argued it had to make these types of changes through a public rulemaking process. The outgoing administration faced a daunting challenge in rewriting volumes of existing laws and regulations in a limited time, and mistakes like this are to be expected. We hope to expose more in the months to come,” Turcke concluded.
“The plaintiffs in this case sought to create bureaucratic gridlock in order to stop many desirable and necessary forest activities,” added Adena Cook, public lands director for BlueRibbon. “While some recreational access activities would have been affected, equally important was the proposed settlement’s restrictions on activities like vegetation thinning and prescribed burning. There are many parts of the country where forest and wildlife management would be nonexistent without these management tools.”
Clyde Schmidt, vice president of the Shawnee Trail Conservancy said, “We need to trust the skills of local managers. We should provide them the flexibility to make decisions during narrow windows of opportunity. The months of delay that would have been created by this agreement would have made it almost impossible to permit recreation events and to perform meaningful fire and vegetation management projects.”
Foreman’s ruling effectively returns the parties to the beginning stages of the litigation. “We don’t know what will happen next,” Turcke observed. “The agency might decide it still wants to pursue these regulatory changes. However, if it does, it will have to proceed in an open public process.”
For more information . . .
Visit the BlueRibbon Coalition Web site at http://www.sharetrails.org. The Blue Ribbon Coalition is a national nonprofit recreation group that champions responsible multiple-use access to public lands. It represents over 1,000 businesses and organizations with a combined membership of 600,000.