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Senators Call on Bush to End Lockout of National Forest Lands

Two key Senate Democrats last Tuesday called on President Bush to order the Department of Agriculture's Forest Service to rescind an order that suspended more than 1,500 permits, projects and contracts across the National Forest System, including several projects involving oil and natural gas development.

The suspension order "will prevent thousands of people from accessing their public lands. It will cause substantial economic losses to many small businesses that depend on the National Forests to guide hunters, gather food and fuel, access private property and other activities," such as oil and gas drilling, wrote Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Sen. Tom Harkin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, in a letter to President Bush.

The suspension of individual projects will remain in effect until public comment periods can begin, according to Bill Wicker, a spokesman for Bingaman. "This could stop whole projects," he told NGI.

This action by the Agriculture Department's Forest Service was an "unnecessary and inappropriate response" to a recent ruling (Earth Island Institute vs. Ruthernbeck) by a federal court in the eastern district of California, Bingaman and Harkin said.

"We urge you to bring accountability within your administration to this situation and to use the authority already in law to allow non-controversial forest activities to resume immediately," they noted.

"Career employees of the Forest Service are frustrated that they cannot get authorization from their superiors to proceed with these non-controversial activities in a normal fashion. Even the opposing litigants in the court case [Earth Island] have offered to permit non-controversial projects to go forward. Ironically, it would appear that the only parties opposing these normal, non-controversial activities are the persons whom you have appointed to oversee the Department and the Forest Service."

Bingaman and Harkin called on Bush to "put an end to what is in effect a lock-out of important users of the National Forests by directing your appointees in the department and the Forest Service to use their existing authorities to fix the serious problems they have created."

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