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June 14, 2001

Law professor angers northwestern Pa. legislators with anti-logging suit

Lawmakers from northwestern Pennsylvania are angry that a Pitt law professor is representing environmental groups seeking to block logging in the Allegheny National Forest.

Working pro bono and not as a representative of Pitt or its Environmental Law Clinic (which he directs), Tom Buchele drew up a federal lawsuit to ban the logging of 8,600 acres.

The lawsuit, filed May 21 in the U.S. Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, claims that the U.S. Forest Service's planned East Side Timber Project illegally favors commercial logging over other public forest uses, including recreation and preservation of endangered species and old-growth habitats. The lawsuit also claims the project would violate federal law by clear-cutting forest primarily to generate revenue from sales of highly prized black cherry trees.

Buchele said the U.S. Forest Service clear-cuts, sprays herbicides, applies massive amounts of fertilizer and erects hundreds of miles of fencing against deer, just to promote cherry tree growth.

U.S. Forest Service officials say their project would clear the region of disease- and insect-infested trees and create a better age balance among remaining trees.

Angered by the potential loss of millions of dollars in revenue for his district, U.S. Rep. John Peterson, R-5th District, said Pitt "should be prepared to bear its share of the responsibility for the losses suffered in jobs, by industry, people and communities" as a result of the lawsuit.

In late May, state Sen. Joseph B. Scarnati, R-25th District, threatened to lobby fellow General Assembly members to delay passage of Pitt's state appropriation until "specific policies are significantly changed" regarding outside work by University personnel. Scarnati said Pitt should struggle in funding projects in its proposed budget, just as northwestern Pennsylvania schools and municipalities will struggle because of what he called "this frivolous litigation."

On Tuesday, the state Senate voted 49-0 to approve a $178.5 million appropriation for Pitt next year. Scarnati was the only senator absent. But his chief of staff, Mike Kriner, said: "This was not a form of protest. A family emergency called Sen. Scarnati away from Harrisburg and, as a result, he could not be present for the vote."

Chancellor Mark Norden-berg has been discussing the Allegheny National Forest issue with Scarnati and other legislators, and met in Harrisburg with them on June 4.

Nordenberg told the University Times: "In those discussions, I emphasized the fact that the actions in question are being undertaken by a University employee in his role as an individual citizen and not as a representative of the institution.

"We also have underscored the fact that these claims arise under existing federal law, and their merit will be determined in the course of a judicial process," said Nordenberg, a former Pitt law dean. "At the same time, I recognize that timbering is a very important industry in many of the northern counties, and these elected officials are genuinely concerned about the impact that litigation of this type can have on the economies of their home districts."

Kriner of Scarnati's staff said: "We're still working closely with the chancellor on some issues. Hopefully, we'll be able to bring some resolution to this in the near future."

He added, "Citizens in our region who provide tax revenue to the Commonwealth that ends up going to the University of Pittsburgh deserve some answers as to how exactly the University is allowing [free legal services to environmental groups] to occur and exactly what state-provided resources were used in this effort to block timber cutting."

Given the mission of the law school's Environmental Law Clinic, it could have represented environmentalists seeking to block logging in the Allegheny National Forest — but it did not, Buchele said. "The clinic is going to take on controversial environmental matters; that's what we were founded to do. But I decided in this case, after consulting with my dean [David Herring], that it would be better if I did this on my own. We anticipated there would be this kind of firestorm."

In 1997, two other Pitt law professors did pro bono work that helped an environmental group win an injunction against timber sales in the Allegheny National Forest. State legislators from the region protested back then, too, and argued for blocking Pitt's state appropriation.

Buchele said he wishes Scarnati and Peterson would direct their criticism toward him, not Pitt. "I'm doing this [legal work], not the University," he said. "I think it's unfortunate that the senator and the congressman don't seem to want to debate the merits of the case, either in or out of court, and instead are simply trying to intimidate me and the University so that these environmental groups don't have legal representation."

Buchele said he has been conferring and exchanging information with Dean Herring nearly every day since filing the lawsuit. "The dean has been very supportive, in the sense that he's been trying to help me do this in a way that will cause the least amount of harm to the University. He understands that I feel I have a professional obligation to take on this sort of thing."

The law professor said chancellor's office staff helped to prepare him for fallout from the case. "No one has ever told me, 'You shouldn't do this,' although it has been made clear to me, indirectly, that certain people in the Cathedral of Learning would prefer if I hadn't done this."

Buchele accused northwest Pennsylvania lawmakers of being motivated more by campaign contributions from the timber industry than by concerns about funding for schools and municipalities.

In a May 29 letter to Buchele, U.S. Rep. Peterson accused him of backing out of a promise not to pursue efforts to stop timber harvest in the Allegheny National Forest.

Peterson wrote that Buchele's track record of environmental litigation "caused much concern among political and business leaders of the Allegheny National Forest region.

"That concern prompted me to call a meeting between you, Mr. David Herring, dean of the law school, and myself to discuss whether your background would create conflicts of interest for the entire University. When asked whether you planned to pursue efforts to stop timber harvest on the Allegheny National Forest as you have done in other communities, you responded by saying (on several occasions) that you had no intention of doing so."

Buchele told the University Times, "That is simply not true, and I resent Mr. Peterson's accusation that I am a liar." Buchele also denied Peterson's allegation that he identified himself as a member of the Pitt law faculty in telephone calls related to the Allegheny National Forest litigation. "The calls in question were made prior to this lawsuit and were unrelated to it," Buchele said.

Peterson also questioned why, if Buchele truly was using only his own time and resources, he consistently used his University address as his contact address. Buchele said: "I've used 3900 Forbes Ave. [the law school's street address] as my return address in correspondence related to the lawsuit, but I haven't included the words 'University of Pittsburgh' and I haven't used Pitt letterhead."

— Bruce Steele

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