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Enough really is enough


That was the message the U.S. House of Representatives delivered this week to environmental groups and others bent on using the court system to impose their will on natural resource managers across the nation.

By passing the Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act — HR4571 — on a 229-174 vote, the House took an important step toward returning resource decisions to professional managers, many of whom are now under siege by environmental groups’ lawsuits.

It’s not just a siege; it’s an all-out assault. An assistant attorney general in the Justice Department estimated that there are 7,100 active environmental lawsuits in the nation, according to a story in the Casper, Wyo., Star Tribune. During the past two years, the Capital Press alone has run 636 stories either about or referring to lawsuits, many of them environmental in nature.

These lawsuits target the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and anyone caught in the crossfire. Irrigation districts, grazing associations and other groups of farmers and ranchers must spend time — and money — to protect their interests as the environmental groups attack resource managers.

It must be said that some of the lawsuits are legitimate and focus on legitimate resource concerns. That is as it should be.

Others, however, seem to be aimed at stopping, swaying or delaying resource decisions until the legal questions are rendered moot. Witness lawsuits aimed at stopping salvage logging of burned timber in national forests. If the logging is delayed, the timber’s value eventually diminishes so much that it is not economically viable to log it.

Ironically, as the number of lawsuits grows, the managers’ ability to do their jobs shrinks — the exact opposite of what environmental groups say they want. U.S. Forest Service, EPA and other agencies’ personnel who could and should be developing plans for managing resources instead spend some or all of their time working with lawyers to defend against lawsuits.

And here’s the kicker: Taxpayers often must reimburse environmental groups that sue the government — even if the lawsuit is tossed out as baseless. According to the Sacramento Bee newspaper, taxpayers sent $31.6 million in checks to environmental groups that had sued the government during the 1990s.

“Frivolous lawsuits filed under the guise of environmentalism actually hurt the environment and hinder economic growth at the same time,” said House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif. “Because the environmental organizations that file these suits are entitled to recover taxpayer-funded attorneys’ fees and court awards — win or lose — environmental litigation has become a big business in America.”

What HR4571 would do is restore mandatory sanctions against filing frivolous lawsuits. Any group filing a frivolous lawsuit would have to reimburse the government for its expenses. The rule would also apply to state cases in which the judge finds interstate commerce was affected.

Some might argue that HR4571 would hurt citizens’ rights to a day in court and that environmental groups and consumer advocates and others would be afraid to pursue legal remedies for their concerns.

Not so. Lawsuits that have legal basis would and should continue to be heard. Only the ones that are aimed at tying managers’ hands long enough to win by default or to bully farmers, ranchers, businesses and other private parties would be threatened.

The Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act now heads for the U.S. Senate, where it will hopefully be passed. But don’t hold your breath that it will ever see the light of day — 59 of the Senate’s 100 members are lawyers.





Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:15 AM  Pacific

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