Federal Judge Orders Forest Service to Spend Millions on Nothing

Back in the 1980s, the Forest Service spent well over a billion dollars writing forest plans for each of the 100 or so national forests. Naturally, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups took many of these plans to court. After winning many of those challenges, they were stunned when the Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that the plans made no decisions. With no decisions, they did not constitute an “action,” so the court said no one had the standing to appeal them.

Unfortunately, no one bothered to tell Congress that the plans it had required in 1976 did nothing but spend money, so Congress still requires the agency to revise the plans every ten to fifteen years. But last year, the Bush Administration decided to dispense with about half the paperwork involved in such revisions by not requiring the forests to write separate environmental impact statements for each plan.

Though the plans do nothing, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups took this decision to court. Last week, a federal judge in California ruled that, even though the plans themselves were not an “action,” the rules for how the plans were written are an action. So the judge tossed the rules on the ground that the Forest Service had not written an environmental impact statement for them.

So we can expect the Forest Service to continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on paper plans that make no decisions and take no actions. Although I consider myself more of an environmentalist than a “timber beast,” I am inclined to agree with a representative of the timber industry who says this is “bureaucracy for bureaucracy’s sake.”

Full disclosure: In the 1980s and 1990s, I helped the Sierra Club and other environmental groups challenge forest plans – for what it is worth, the only challenges that were successful were ones that I was involved in. The main lesson I learned was that planning was a waste of time – the Forest Service changed tremendously between 1980 and 2000, but most of those changes were in spite of planning, not because of it.