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2005 Capitol Holiday Tree Caught Up in Legal Logjam

A federal court case that began when environmental groups filed suit to halt commercial logging in national forests is now gaining national attention over the removal of one tree that both sides agree should probably be cut down.

That tree is an 80-foot engelmann spruce located some 8,500 feet above sea level in the Santa Fe National Forest. In July, Matthew Evans, the landscape architect of the Capitol, selected the massive spruce to be the 2005 Capitol Holiday Tree.

But the cutting of the holiday tree, along with 65 “companion trees” that would decorate government offices around Washington, D.C., was included in a list of 1,400 project permits that were suspended by the U.S. Forest Service in compliance with a recent ruling in favor of the environmental groups. Now, hanging in the balance is a national tree tour that is scheduled for November and a lighting ceremony planned for Dec. 8 on the West Front of the Capitol, not to mention the 4,000 ornaments handcrafted by New Mexico school students for the tree.

On Friday, New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici (R) guaranteed that the Capitol would have a holiday tree, even if he had to go to a private tree reserve to find one that could legally be cut. A spokesman for Domenici said the Senator had made plans to harvest a “backup tree” from the Valles Caldera preserve in New Mexico if the tree that Evans selected can’t be sent in time.

But while lawyers for the environmental groups argue that the Forest Service is over-applying U.S. District Judge James Singleton’s decision to portray the court order in an extreme and unfavorable light, Forest Service officials say their hands are tied by the ruling.

Singletons’ rulings in July and September affected Forest Service projects that had been previously exempt from requiring environmental impact studies and public reviews. These projects now require at least a 30-day public notice period, and projects could be delayed months if an objection is raised.

“The court order, which the Forest Service must comply with, is that all ‘categorical exclusion’ projects after July 7 must be suspended pending notice, comment and appeal,” said Dan Jiron, national press officer for the Forest Service. “The Forest Service is working very hard to move [the holiday tree project] forward. They know this is an important symbol for the country and everyone understands that, but I think we also have to follow the court order.”

On Wednesday, Justice Department lawyers, who are representing the Forest Service in the case, submitted a motion seeking to stay Singleton’s ruling pending appeal. If that stay is granted the holiday tree project could move forward.

“A stay is appropriate, as there is a substantial likelihood that the Court’s decisions will be reversed on appeal, and, in the meantime, compliance with the Court’s orders is causing irreparable harm to the Forest Service,” the motion said.

But, on Thursday, lawyers for the environmental groups asked that Singleton dismiss the stay and instead clarify his original ruling so activities, such as the holiday tree cutting, would not be affected.

“As the plaintiffs explained to the Forest Service by letter, activities such as outfitter permits, individual Christmas tree cutting, and mushroom picking are not affected by the Court’s orders. … It is apparent that the Forest Service is applying this interpretation to create a ‘backlash’ against the Court’s orders in order to gain a legislative override or other relief from the Court’s order,” wrote Matt Kenna, a lawyer for the Western Environmental Law Center who is representing the environmental groups. Kenna requested that the court “clarify the effect of its orders, so that the Forest Service may no longer use the public as pawns in its efforts to discredit the plaintiffs and the Court’s order.”

But even as both sides filed their motions last week, Domenici and fellow New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D) were working to intervene on behalf of the engelmann spruce that Evans selected. The two Senators sent a letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns asking that they intercede so the tree can be delivered on schedule.

Jude McCartin, spokeswoman for Bingaman, said the Senator “is confused as to why the Forest Service is finding impediments where there clearly are none. … The bigger lawsuit had nothing to do with the tree.”

“As long as the 30-day public comment period exists, we believe the timeline is in jeopardy for the tree getting here,” said Matt Letourneau, spokesman for Domenici. “We’ve been trying to convince the justice department that [the Forest Service] didn’t need to apply that rule to the holiday tree.”

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