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Supreme Court takes up timber dispute

WASHINGTON -- A well-seasoned Sequoia National Forest logging dispute comes to a boil today as the U.S. Supreme Court considers when activists can challenge the management of federal lands.

In one of the year's most anticipated environmental cases, the court could either narrow or expand the public's power over the Forest Service. Everyone from homebuilders to California Attorney General Jerry Brown is weighing in.

"This case is about the most significant environmental policy issue to be heard by the Supreme Court in a long time," Kernville resident Ara Marderosian said Tuesday.

Marderosian is executive director of Sequoia ForestKeeper, one of several environmental groups clashing with the Forest Service over Sierra Nevada land management.

The environmentalists, joined by the state of California, complain that the Bush administration shields public-land decisions from oversight. Through the case called Summers v. Earth Island Institute, they are challenging rules that exempt certain Forest Service decisions from standard public comment and administrative appeal procedures.

The Forest Service rules "have worked to foreclose all public review, comment and appeal of certain timber sales and logging projects," Brown wrote in a legal brief.

But while Brown denounced the Bush administration for trying to "radically alter" legal rules, farmers, loggers and homebuilders are urging the high court to insulate some public-land decisions from broad attack.

"Our members invest substantial resources to plan for, and comply with, a known set of regulations," the California Forestry Association noted. "When nonregulated third parties challenge those regulations ... [and] prevail, district courts too frequently issue nationwide injunctions against the rule."

The Sacramento-based forestry group joined the National Association of Home Builders, the American Farm Bureau Federation and others in a friend-of-the-court brief, one of five filed in Summers v. Earth Island Institute.

The case began smoldering in the summer of 2002, when a Sequoia National Forest campfire blew out of control. The resulting wildfire burned 150,700 acres, killing up to 80% of the trees in some areas. The next year, Forest Service officials offered a 238-acre area called Burnt Ridge for salvage logging.

Officials declared that timber projects less than 250 acres -- as well as forest thinning up to 1,000 acres -- were too small to need a standard environmental assessment. Officials further determined this meant there would be no public comment or appeal process.

Environmentalists sued, and the Forest Service withdrew its Burnt Ridge plans. The lawsuit continues, though -- now as a challenge to the overall Forest Service policy excluding some projects from public comment and appeals.

Two crucial legal principles are in question: standing and ripeness. The former determines who can sue, and the latter determines when suits can be brought.

The Bush administration argues environmentalists lack standing to sue. The administration contends environmentalists must wait until another specific timber project comes along to complain about.

Environmentalists take a broader view, insisting their underlying complaint is with the Forest Service rules limiting public comment and appeal.