Trigger happy litigation

June 03, 2003 11:00 pm

Citizen groups can use the courts to force government entities and large corporations to follow the laws of the United States of America.

Indeed, lawsuits are critical tools for holding these titanic bureaucracies accountable. No quantity of "please" and "thank you," or petitions and protests, carries the weight of a court order.

Except maybe public opinion.

That's why a successful lawsuit and a populist cause form the ideal union for prodding an organization out of its inertia and into action.

But what about a successful lawsuit and an incomprehensible cause? Or worse: an unpopular or unimportant cause coupled with a botched lawsuit?

The Hells Canyon Preservation Council and their allies, however just the causes the name implies are within their purview, just saw their buckshot litigation strategy blow up in their faces.

First, a judge ruled in favor of HCPC in a dispute with the U.S. Forest Service over whether cows can winter on private lands on the Imnaha River.

This is a modest victory. The judge did not decide whether or not cows could remain in the river corridor. Instead, the Forest Service has been directed to re-examine its policy of allowing the cows to winter on private lands inside the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.

Whoopee. Do you suppose the Forest Service will take a second look and have second thoughts?

Last week, a federal judge dismissed an HCPC lawsuit regarding the Lord Flat Road and the Hells Canyon Wilderness boundary.

In an embarrassing turn of events, the judge pointed out that essentially the same lawsuit had been filed and settled years earlier — by HCPC.

Forget fueling the anger of people who struggle to accept barring motorized vehicles from wilderness areas. Blunders like this one alienate would-be supporters for organizations like HCPC.

It's that public relations battle that environmental groups can't lose if they are to be truly effective when it counts.

More and more Americans see groups like HCPC less and less like crusaders for right than obstructionists bent on gumming up the works and paralyzing public land management. Frivolous and fruitless lawsuits only work to reinforce that image in the public's minds.

Groups like HCPC can't afford to cry "wolf" if they are to stand a chance of playing a constructive part in the management of our public lands.