Forest Service has until July 28 to answer federal law suit alleging freedom of information violations

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / The sun sets on a cloudy day over Parksville Lake in the Cherokee National Forest in 2020. The cypress trees are Ocoee landmark as they grow from the lake near where Greasy Creek joins the reservoir. A Trump-era rule change in November 2020 eliminated safeguards involving public input under the National Environmental Policy Act that protects national forests from unneeded, ill-conceived and destructive logging, road building and utility right-of-way projects.

Two environmental groups are suing the U.S. Forest Service, saying the agency is failing to release public records that would shed light on new rules that bypass a public study and review process for certain projects.

The rules were put in place in November 2020 by the administration of former President Donald Trump, but the records dispute has dragged on well into the administration of President Joe Biden.

The Southern Environmental Law Center in Virginia and Defenders of Wildlife in Washington, D.C., sued in June, saying records have been withheld for as long as three years, and counting. The forest service was recently granted a two-week extension through July 28 to respond to the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Virginia.

Forest Service officials had little to say about the matter. Agency spokesman Alan Abernethy said Tuesday by email that the agency does not comment on pending or ongoing litigation.

Former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said when rolling out the new rule changes that creating exemptions from the extensive study process for certain projects would allow for a more nimble approval process for forest management.

"These changes will ensure we do the appropriate level of environmental analysis to fit the work, locations and conditions," he said in a Nov. 18, 2020, statement. "The new categorical exclusions will ultimately improve our ability to maintain and repair the infrastructure people depend on to use and enjoy their national forests - such as roads, trails, campgrounds and other facilities."

According to the lawsuit, the Trump administration rules "would allow the Forest Service to authorize large commercial timber sales up to 2,800 acres, roadbuilding projects, and 20-acre 'special uses,' such as pipeline installation" without the public study and review process normally required.

Litigation is ongoing on the rules themselves, but the new lawsuit by the two environmental groups covers documents they have requested that they say would normally have been released through the environmental review process.

"In order to protect conservation values on federal public lands, Defenders of Wildlife and similar groups must know where, why and how the Forest Service intends to conduct logging and other projects early enough to influence them," the lawsuit claims. "When logging is approved (without the public study process), conservation groups lack the time or the information to correct errors in the agency's reasoning, fill important site-specific knowledge gaps or propose alternative courses of action which better protect their interests."

The lawsuit says Defenders of Wildlife filed Freedom of Information Act requests and the subsequent lawsuit in an attempt to learn about projects that might have been proposed or approved without the usual public process - "so that it can allocate its own scarce resources appropriately and mitigate some of the harm."

(READ MORE: Chattanooga area conservationists plan Atlanta rally against proposed U.S. Forest Service rule change)

The suit asks the court to declare the Forest Service violated the Freedom of Information Act and is continuing to do so in its alleged failure to provide an adequate search for records in response to requests by the organizations, for failure to provide nonexempt documents responsive to groups' requests and to direct the federal agency to provide all nonexempt, responsive documents without further delay.

The suit also asks the court to retain jurisdiction over the matter in order to rule on the adequacy of the agency's efforts to provide information sought under the act in the future, and to award attorneys fees and court costs.

Contact Ben Benton at or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.