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BENTON — A federal judge has lifted an injunction barring timber cutting and oil and gas drilling in Shawnee National Forest.

District Judge J. Phil Gilbert dissolved the injunction that he originally granted in 1996 after a lawsuit filed by several environmentalist groups against the U.S. Forest Service and other defendants.

Oral arguments were heard on a motion to dissolve the injunction last year. The forest service argued that earlier shortcomings cited by Gilbert had been remedied with a new final environmental impact statement and a revised forest plan.

Plaintiffs argued that the forest service had failed to comply with the court’s orders, despite having “had 15 years to do so.”

“To the contrary, the USFS has repeated many of the same mistakes that led this court to issue the permanent injunction in the first place,” the plaintiff’s attorney said in his previous argument against lifting the injunction.

In his order, Gilbert said “circumstances have significantly changed since the injunction was issued.”

The forest service, he said, “has embarked on an entirely new forest planning process that was based on entirely new environmental analysis and resulted in the selection of a different forest planning alternative.”

A new forest plan was drawn in 2006, superseding the 1992 plan that was at the heart of the case. That new plan is subject to a new administrative appeal process and judicial review, he said.

“Because the 2006 Forest Plan and its supporting documents superseded the documents on which the court’s injunction was based, it should be reviewed through a separate appeal and considering a full administrative record,” the judge said.

Reaction was mixed.

“This is a setback for people who want to protect the Shawnee and a victory for people who are willing to sacrifice our natural heritage for a quick, short-term profit. The bottom line is it allows the resumption of the forest service’s money-losing timber program as well as oil and gas drilling,” local environmentalist Sam Stearns said.

U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Amanda Patrick said the 2006 plan addressed Gilbert’s earlier concerns, and with resolution to the case, the service would now be able to fully implement that plan.

Concerned citizens will continue to offer comment and feedback, Stearns said.

“We’ll have to deal with each project that comes down the pipeline,” he said. “The people who love the Shawnee will again rise to the occasion and defend the forest.”

618-927-5633

On Twitter: @beckymalkovich

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