Campground and Timber Companies Sue U.S. Government over Shutdown

Monday, October 21, 2013
(photo: John Flesher, AP)

The cost of the recent federal government shutdown—estimated by Standard & Poor’s to be at least $24 billion—may go up further if two shutdown-related lawsuits against the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) succeed. The suits contend that agency decisions to suspend concessionaire operations at developed campgrounds and halt timber sales and operations were illegal and cost the concessionaires and timber companies millions of dollars.


In the concessionaire case, plaintiffs National Forest Recreation Association (NFRA) and three campground management companies sued USFS in Federal Court alleging that the agency’s decision to close developed campgrounds and recreation sites and suspend concessionaire operations in the National Forests during the shutdown was unlawful. They argue that the services they provide, including general maintenance, emergency first aid, restrooms and clean drinking water, are essential to protecting the health and safety of campers, who were forced to recreate in undeveloped areas that lack any services.


Noting that concessioners “pay money to the federal government to operate,” plaintiffs claim that “the reduction in Forest Service funding has absolutely no impact on the ability of concessioners to continue to ensure public safety and reduce risk of property damage.”


Of course, the lawsuit is not based entirely on such altruistic grounds. “In addition to the harm to the public safety and risk of damage to property and resources, the decision to close privately funded campground concession operations has resulted in the loss of hundreds of jobs and revenues that will never be recovered. Congress has stated no intention to vote to restore campground concessioners ‘back pay,’” contends the complaint. Plaintiffs want a declaration that the campground shutdown was an abuse of discretion and contrary to law, and they want attorneys’ fees, too.


In the timber case, the American Forest Resource Council and three timber companies sued USFS and the Bureau of Land Management in Federal Court over a decision to suspend timber sales and logging operations during the shutdown. The agencies did so pursuant to the Antideficiency Act, which prohibits government agencies from spending money without an approved budget.


The timber plaintiffs, however, argue that two exceptions in the Act applied. First, the complaint argues that the Act does not require suspension of previously awarded federal contracts, if “‘continued supervision or not critical to the contractor’s...continued performance during that period,’” the complaint states. Plaintiffs assert that this is the case.


Second, contract suspension is inappropriate in cases of “‘emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property,’” and the companies assert that their “timber sale contracts [are] intended to protect human life and safety and/or the protection of property on an emergency basis.” The complaint offers no support for this remarkable statement.


The Forest Service has not commented on the lawsuits, which have become somewhat, though not entirely, moot with the re-opening of the federal government.

-Matt Bewig


To Learn More:

Campground Managers Frozen by Shutdown (by Ryan Abbott, Courthouse News Service)

Shutdown Was 'Devastating' to Wood Industry (by June Williams, Courthouse News Service)


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