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Seattle PI: "Shady Bush deal could see light of day"

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January 25, 2009 -- The Obama Administration's new, let-the-sun-shine-in freedom of information policy has both sides buzzing in a major lawsuit over a controversial Bush administration lumber deal.

By Joel Connelly
Seattle P-I Columnist

THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION'S new, let-the-sun-shine-in freedom of information policy has both sides buzzing in a major lawsuit over a controversial Bush administration lumber deal.

Lawyers for the federal government, defendants in the suit, have asked for two weeks to "re-examine" a previous decision to withhold 244 pieces of evidence sought by plaintiffs in the case.

"U.S. Trade Representative will need time to review all of the withheld emails, email chains, and/or documents pursuant to the new (Obama) Freedom of Information Act policy and to coordinate review and release of such materials with other agencies," said a filing by the feds.

Is this the tipoff of good things to come?

The Obama policy, announced Wednesday, promises to let the public peer into how decisions were (and are) made.

Taxpayer-owners stand to learn how public resources have been given away, and how vast tracks of public lands (and waters) were opened to oil and gas leasing -- with advice from agency professionals often ignored.

The suit stems from a chain (saw) of events.

The U.S. Trade Representative, in 2006, negotiated a settlement to a long-standing dispute over Canada's lumber exports to the States. The U.S. agreed to return $5 billion in duties collected on Canadian wood. Canada promised to limit its exports.

But the Canadians agreed to pay back $1 billion, with $450 million going to "meritorious initiatives" to promote sustainable forestry, support timber towns and promote education and disaster relief.

A coalition of environmental groups filed suit last September, charging that federal officials diverted $350 million to forestry foundations "dominated by the timber industry."

The suit seeks a declaration that the money should have gone to the U.S. Treasury. The plaintiffs are also asking for a declaration that the softwood lumber deal was illegal under federal environmental laws.

Of particular interest was a group called the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, which received $200 million. The well-endowed endowment was formed just before the U.S.-Canada deal was finalized, its board dominated by timber and timber-related industries.

Another $150 million went to the American Forest Foundation. The foundation is a nonprofit geared toward helping family-owned timber companies, environmental education and stopping conversion of timberlands into housing developments.

Its trustees are drawn mainly from owners of small tree farms and timber-related companies.

(The remaining $100 million went to Habitat for Humanity, on the premise that construction of homes for the needy would spur demand for U.S. and Canadian softwood lumber.)

The lawsuit plaintiffs claim two of the foundations are dominated by the timber industry, and were chosen for this reason by Bush operatives at the Council for Environmental Quality.

"No environmental folks were invited to participate nor do the two foundations have any environmental representation on their boards," said Peter Goldman of the Washington Forest Law Center.

The suit's merits -- or lack of same -- are the business of U.S. District Judge Richard Jones. The softwood lumber dispute was a big deal in the Great White North, but a snoozer south of the 49th Parallel.

What's promising here, however, is that the U.S. Trade Representative is apparently scrambling to comply with last Wednesday's Obama's directives to federal agencies.

Getting a Freedom of Information Act request processed by the USTR has been, for lawyers and scribes alike, akin to trying to go through Mont Blanc before they built the tunnel.

The requested information was always in litigation or "proprietary" with the processing lasting even longer than the seemingly endless cross-border finger pointing.

What can we look for down the line?

Well, to start out, how 'bout shining a light on a politically influenced decision (with likely ex-Vice President Dick Cheney and former Bush Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove prints) to give irrigators water in the Klamath Basin of southern Oregon?

The result: River flows were so low, and river temperatures so warm, that more than 35,000 adult salmon died downstream on the Klamath River.

Exchanges between wildlife biologists and the Minerals Management Service, over the opening of Alaska's Chukchi Sea to oil leasing, will surely expose the underbelly of federal decision-making. Did polar bears take a fall for the carbon economy?

Just before leaving office, the Bushies tried to remove the gray wolf from Endangered Species Act protection. "Protection" of canis lupus would pass into the hands of state officials.

Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter of Idaho has promised to be first in line for a ticket to shoot a wolf. In fact, Otter wants to kill 550 of the state's 650 wolves, reducing packs from 70 to 10.

The Obama administration suspended and promises to review the delisting decision.

It would be revealing to read exchanges between Otter and outgoing Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, his predecessor as governor.

Such is a Northwest-oriented Freedom of Information Act shopping list.

What's yours?