Once again, past actions are returning to haunt the Clinton Administration.
This time, the subject is its termination of Alaska Pulp Co.'s 50-year contract to harvest timber from the Tongass National Forest. The 1994 decision eliminated about 1,500 jobs in Southeast Alaska, according to the Alaska Congressional Delegation.
Alaska Pulp later sued in the U.S. Court of Claims, saying the U.S. Forest Service terminated the contract improperly.
Judge Lawrence Baskir agreed with APC last week. His decision raised the possibility that the federal government will be liable for damages in excess of $1 billion.
Unfortunately, the wheels of justice turned too slowly to help the hundreds of Southeast Alaskans affected by the administration's 1994 action. But the wheels did turn, and the result reinforces what we knew to be true: This administration flouted the law, violated its own contractual obligations and needlessly trampled the economy of Southeast.
Now, the courts will add up the costs. Sen. Frank Murkowski said earlier this week the federal government is likely to be on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, if not the full $1.4 billion sought by Alaska Pulp Company. Of course, when we say federal government, that means the American taxpayer. Heaven forbid any decision makers be held personally liable for the mischief caused.
Financial considerations aside, the more serious damage is to the reputation of our government.
The past decade has seen a government willing to act outside of its established procedures and despite its contractual obligations to further its political aims regarding the Tongass National Forest.
The contract termination of 1994 was an indication of what was to come in 1999, when an administration official single-handedly rewrote the Tongass Land Management Plan to reduce allowable timber harvests. In turn, those actions are harbingers of the Clinton administration's ''roadless initiative'' which might yet include the Tongass and Chugach National Forests over the protests of Alaska's elected Congressional delegation.
Such actions increase distrust and foster the idea that this administration believes itself above the law.
We hope Judge Haskin's decision reminds the administration that it's still wrong to break the rules. We despair, however, that it's not likely to deter future misdeeds. ----
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