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Conservation group wins suit over forest records fee

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  1. Freedom of Information
Oct. 24, 2007  ·   The U.S. Forest Service has relented in its efforts to charge a nonprofit conservation group…

Oct. 24, 2007  ·   The U.S. Forest Service has relented in its efforts to charge a nonprofit conservation group for records that are expected to show the impact of unauthorized roads and recent policy changes upon national forests.

Through a consent decree filed Oct. 15 in federal district court in Montana, the Forest Service agreed to turn over documents related to timber sale records, forest plan evaluation reports, ecosystem assessments and road management plans, among other records.

Wildlands CPR, the nonprofit requester, expects the records to show that damage to national forests caused by unauthorized roads has been increasing, said David Bahr, an attorney representing the group.

The consent decree likely ends a two-year fight over Wildlands CPR’s Freedom of Information request, which the Forest Service originally said did not adequately describe how the conservation group planned to use the information, according to Bahr, who works for the Western Environmental Law Center in Eugene, Ore. As a result, the Forest Service said the request did not sufficiently support the public interest and did not qualify for a fee waiver.

Because the charges associated with the request would have likely run into the tens of thousands of dollars, Bahr said, the fee waiver denial equated to a full denial of access for the nonprofit group.

While the Forest Service began to release more records as the litigation proceeded, the agency has until Nov. 20 to disclose the remaining documents. Wildlands and the agency are still negotiating over whether the government will pay the nonprofit group’s attorneys’ fees related to the litigation, Bahr said.

“The result was the result that we should’ve obtained two years ago,” he said. “We shouldn’t have been required to file an appeal. We shouldn’t have been required to litigate.”

Bahr said a primary impetus for the group’s initial FOIA request was to monitor the effects of a new travel management rule instituted by the agency in late 2005 that mandated separate motor vehicle rules for each national forest.

Transcripts of a status conference held between U.S. District Judge Donald W. Molloy and the parties in the case show the judge had become frustrated with the government’s position.

“What’s the Forest Service afraid of here? What are they afraid of?” the judge asked. “After all, these are public forests. And if they’re in the process of doing this evaluation, re-evaluation, bringing things up to snuff, as I think I’ve heard on a number of cases, it just seems to me that informed people who want to participate, why fight ’em? I mean, why not give them the information?”

(Wildlands CPR v. United States Forest Service, Media counsel: David A. Bahr, Western Environmental Law Center, Eugene, Ore.)Scott Albright


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