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WASHINGTON The U.S. government held secret meetings with the timber industry to boost sales and weaken habitat protection in Pacific Northwest national forests, several environmental groups charged in a lawsuit this week. Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund filed the lawsuit in federal court in Seattle to obtain records showing the U.S. Justice Department met with timber industry representatives seeking ways to water down the Northwest Forest Plan.

Earthjustice represents several groups involved in the lawsuit, including Biodiversity Northwest and the Oregon Natural Resources Council. "(The Bush administration) has been engaged in secret discussions with industry representatives over initiatives to weaken the (forest plan) and the process of implementing that plan," the lawsuit said. The lawsuit said the meetings began in January 2001. Earthjustice said it was forced to go to court because the Justice Department, which is overseeing talks with the timber industry on the forest plan, refused to turn over documents in response to a Freedom of Information Act request last year. There was no immediate comment available from the Justice Department. The Northwest Forest Plan was a 1994 compromise between environmentalists and the logging industry to remove gridlock so logging projects could proceed without endangering area habitat and old growth forests. Green groups said the Bush administration has gradually eased logging rules in the region to allow thinning of old-growth forests. Timber companies, however, contend that access to the forest is lower than what they accepted when the agreement was signed. Lawsuits have been filed to halt logging projects to save spotted owls and other species that the forest plan protects. In December, U.S. fishing and environmental groups asked a federal judge to block timber sales in the Pacific Northwest that could damage salmon habitat. "In the guise of settling lawsuits, federal officials have retired to the backroom to work out deals that sacrifice our old-growth forests, salmon, and clean water for the sake of increasing clear-cutting our public lands," said Patti Goldman, a lawyer with Earthjustice. The Bush administration said last year it would rewrite logging rules for national forests in the Pacific Northwest. The environmental groups say the government has been consulting with the timber industry on ways to modify the plan and circumvent environmental considerations. "These 'settlement' discussions have taken place in secret with representatives of only one perspective: the timber industry and its allies who want to increase the amount of timber cut on the western ancient forests," the lawsuit said. "Voices for salmon, old-growth-dependent species, water quality, and preservation of old-growth forest ecosystems have been shut out."
Source: Reuters