Commentary: Western communities lose as environmental groups reap millions
The U.S. Forest Service released its budget justification for Fiscal Year 2020 and it includes a lot of information about the agency and its finances. Buried in this voluminous document are details about settlement awards and attorney’s fees related to the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), Endangered Species Act (ESA) and amounts paid in settlement for all litigation against the agency.
This report reveals that between 2011 and 2018, environmental groups received over $9 million in fees and settlement awards, often at the expense of our rural communities and American taxpayers. About $2.5 million of the $9 million paid out over that period was made to groups suing to stop forest management projects. Environmental groups or their attorneys were awarded an average of $76,000 in the 33 forest management cases.
EAJA is a federal law authorizing the payment of attorney’s fees to citizens and groups who successfully sue the federal government. Yet this well-intentioned law has been weaponized by environmental groups, which exploit the complex web of federal laws and regulations to sue land management agencies and bring important projects to a standstill.
As one example, environmental groups received $77,000 in attorney’s fees from successful litigation against the Stonewall Vegetation Project in Montana. In the face of significant forest health concerns on the Lewis and Clark National Forest, the project was initially proposed as far back as 2010. The Forest Service recognized that action was needed to respond to mountain pine beetle outbreaks, and the forest should be managed to maintain and improve viable mature habitat structure to support big game and other wildlife.