Alaska riders included in big federal spending bill

Posted: Friday, January 24, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The U.S. Senate has adopted two riders included in a major spending bill that would bar court challenges to the new trans-Alaska Pipeline right-of-way agreement and a Forest Service decision on wilderness in the Tongass National Forest.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski's amendment, included in the omnibus federal spending bill, would insulate the new trans-Alaska Pipeline right-of-way agreement from lawsuits and judicial review.

The measure, passed Thursday, would extend a key provision in the 1973 law that authorized the pipeline. Effectively, Congress would be saying that the environmental studies conducted during the pipeline reauthorization process are sufficient and shall not be subject to court review.

Murkowski said it is aimed at heading off protracted and, in her view unnecessary, litigation by environmental groups and other pipeline critics.

''The line's been in place 30 years. And the question is if there is a legal challenge to it, you spend a couple million dollars of taxpayer money toward the lawyer fees and all that's entailed with that. And I don't think anybody out there is suggesting that we're going to be taking the pipeline out of the ground. So what purpose does it serve?'' Murkowski told reporters.

But critics who believe the pipeline renewal is flawed and should have undergone more thorough review are outraged by Murkowski's amendment. Deborah Williams, executive director of the Alaska Conservation Foundation, said that, if the pipeline's environmental impact study is solid it can withstand a court challenge.

The bill also includes a rider, introduced by Sen. Ted Stevens, that would effectively bar environmental groups from using administrative appeals or the courts to press for more wilderness designations in roadless areas of the Tongass National Forest.

At issue is whether more of the 16.8 million-acre national forest in Southeast should be put off-limits to development. Environmentalists sued the Forest Service over the Tongass management plan, saying the agency ignored the possibility of designating new wilderness areas, where logging and road building are generally prohibited.

In April 2001, a judge agreed and ordered the Forest Service to review 9.7 million roadless acres and decide whether Congress should consider creating new wilderness areas. Last May, the agency issued a draft decision, saying no to new Tongass wilderness. The agency said it would issue its final decision early this year.

The intent of the sentence Stevens included in the spending bill is to allow the Forest Service's decision to stand.

It says that the agency's Tongass wilderness decision ''shall not be reviewed under any Forest Service administrative appeal process and its adequacy shall not be subject to judicial review by any court of the United States.''

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