Western communities lose as environmental groups reap millions in EAJA payouts
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.
The agency determined that treatments on unnaturally overgrown stands would promote resiliency with a mosaic of species, reduce fire hazard and potential, and provide timber products to support Western Montana jobs. All of these proposed actions were supported by science. Further the Stonewall project included recommendations from the collaborative Lincoln Restoration Committee, consisting of local government officials, conservationists and timber industry representatives. The collaborative agreed to a combination of logging and prescribed burning to accomplish the goals of the project.
Two environmental groups refused to participate in the collaboration. Instead, they sued the Forest Service claiming that the forest management activities and road densities would endanger Canada lynx and grizzly bears under the ESA, even though the proposed action had been found to comply with the ESA by the Fish and Wildlife Service. As the Stonewall Vegetation Project ground to halt, portions of the project area would later burn in the Park Creek and Arrasta Fires.
Over the years the U.S. Forest Service has spent millions of dollars and countless hours of staff time defending itself against litigation, and then spending millions more when they lose in court. Meanwhile, over half the agency’s budget is spent suppressing wildfires on unnaturally-overgrown and fire-prone forests. Over 80 million acres of National Forest System land is at immediate risk of catastrophic wildfire, yet due to agency analysis paralysis, the real and perceived threat of litigation, and chronic budget and personnel shortfalls, the agency is only able to treat a fraction of these acres every year. Something is very wrong here, and only the U.S. Congress can fix this mess.
Nick Smith is Executive Director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that advocates for active management of federal forest lands.