Recent articles’ illustrate the philosophical differences between those who support responsible forest management and those who are against logging. No matter where you may come down on the issue, it’s important to know who suffers the consequences of environmental litigation and who pays for it. What most people don’t know is the dirty little secret called the Equal Access to Justice Act, or EAJA.
The act was passed in 1980 to help veterans with disabilities pursue claims against the federal government. Today it has been expanded, largely by the 9th Circuit Court, providing a way for “nonprofit” groups to sue the U.S. Forest Service when they don’t agree with proposed management activities.
Over the last five years the payments for legal challenges to the Forest Service have nearly doubled, costing the taxpayer over $38 million in 2015. EAJA is not benefiting average citizens as Congress had intended. Thirty-three-hundred lawsuits were filed by just 12 special interest groups from 2001 to 2011. During this time $37 million was awarded to special interest groups, including awards of attorney fees of $500-750 per hour, according to research by Wyoming attorney Karen Budd-Falen.
These direct payments to environmental group attorneys are only a small portion of the overall costs to the taxpayer and the citizens affected by these challenges. Over the last couple of years, groups such as Friends of the Clearwater and Idaho Rivers United have brought action against the Forest Service to halt forest restoration after catastrophic wildfires. The toll on the communities goes much deeper than taxpayer dollars spent to defend these suits. No one counts the cost of jobs lost and families displaced after mills are forced to close due to lack of resources. Unfortunately, those folks do not have the same equal access to justice as these highly funded and financially motivated activist organizations.
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With our country facing a $20 trillion debt and our Social Security Trust Fund facing insolvency (did I mention these EAJA payments come out of your Social Security Trust Fund?), we should all be outraged that we are paying for this abuse of our legal system. No matter where you stand on forest issues, it should offend all Americans that Social Security dollars are used to fund a few extreme groups whose legal tactics end up harming our environment.
All Americans are entitled to due process and access to the courts. It’s wrong for special interest groups to exploit a well-intended law to reap attorney fees and fund their agendas. Congress should address this issue by bringing greater transparency and accountability to EAJA, and by making it more difficult for groups to stymie responsible forest projects that benefit our environment, protect our resources and support local jobs. It’s time to bring balance to a system that, for too long, has favored those who don’t want any management of public forests.
Mike Boeck is an outdoor enthusiast. He has spent over 43 years as a resource professional working in forest management and resource procurement, most recently with TriPro Forest Products and Merritt Brothers Lumber Co.