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Forest harvests back on after legal clarification.

Byline: Diane Dietz The Register-Guard

Mushroom pickers can go back to work in the federal forests in Oregon.

And families can put the quest for a wild Christmas tree back on their slate of upcoming holiday events.

About two weeks after the Forest Service stopped issuing permits for those activities on its acreage nationwide, a California judge cleared the way this week for a return to normal for hobbyist and commercial collectors who want to roam the forests.

"We are free to go ahead with the issuance of permits," Willamette National Forest spokeswoman Patti Rodgers said Thursday afternoon. "I just sent a message to our front liners that says you're good to go."

Clarifying an earlier ruling, U.S. District Judge James Singleton Jr. wrote Wednesday that the Forest Service needs to take public comments and consider appeals only on major projects, such as timber sales and prescribed burns. The agency does not need to follow that elaborate process on minor things such as permits for hunting guides or gathering mushrooms, the judge said.

The directive follows an outcry against the Forest Service for abruptly clamping down on mushroom picking, Christmas tree cutting and the like, and requiring that the public comment procedures apply to them.

In his move, the judge agreed with environmentalists who said the Forest Service, in its clampdown, had overreacted to an earlier ruling by Singleton.

Thursday's directive by Singleton "is pretty solid proof that the Forest Service was playing games with thousands of people's livelihoods to try to get a political advantage,'' said Jim Bensman of Heartwood, a Midwest forest protection group that had sued the Bush administration over changes the administration made to forest management rules.

The Forest Service, reacting to a Singleton ruling in that lawsuit, had suspended nearly 1,500 activities nationwide, including the cutting of an 80-foot spruce in New Mexico to serve as the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree, the transfer of an operating permit for a ski area outside Los Angeles and permits to pick mushrooms on national forests in Oregon.

The two-week permit ban was a hardship for Oregon residents who make their living foraging in the woods.

Pleasant Hill resident Pat Mooney said he lost half his wreath and Christmas tree cutting season during the shutdown. He estimates that will cost him as much as $15,000.

The ban hurt the eight commercial wreath makers whom Mooney supplies. "I'm having a hard time getting greenery to get to them," he said.

"I'm a little wore out and frustrated now. I sat in a holding pattern for 10 days and watched all this good weather go by. Some things - like this good weather - you can't recoup," Mooney said.

The temporary ban was a big problem for Oregon mushroom pickers, too. Many rural Oregon residents rely on the fall mushroom harvest to boost their incomes.

They risked a $400 fine if they ignored the ban and picked without a permit. But the Willamette National Forest reported issuing no citations for picking without a permit during the two-week closure.

Rep. Peter DeFazio and five other Western lawmakers sent a letter earlier this week to Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth on behalf of the foragers. They argued that Bosworth's directive requiring mushroom picking and Christmas tree cutting to go through long public comment periods caused unnecessary confusion and placed a burden on many who rely on the national forests for income and recreation.

"The action is particularly ill-timed considering the short harvest season for mushrooms and Christmas trees," DeFazio said.

The whole issue stemmed from a 2003 lawsuit by Heartwood and other environmental groups challenging the harvest of burned trees on the Sequoia National Forest in California. The Forest Service had approved that logging under what is called a categorical exclusion, which does not allow for public comment or appeals. The Heartwood lawsuit was aimed at striking down rules adopted by the Bush administration in 2003 that limited public comment on logging decisions, Bensman said.

The judge two weeks ago said the administration's 2003 rules were invalid and suspended them.

The judge, in his directive Thursday, wrote that when he suspended the 2003 regulations, he intended for the Forest Service to go back to regulations in effect before they were changed in 2003. Mushroom picking and other low-impact activities were not included.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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Title Annotation:Government
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Oct 21, 2005
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