On August 30, 1995, a final rule, amending CFR 36 Sections 251 and 261 was published in the (Federal Register, August 30, 1995, pgs. 45258 - 45295). This rule would restrict the public's right to gather in the National Forests of this country. I am concerned that freedom to peaceable assembly on public lands -- in my opinion, the keystone of this nation -- has been revoked by regulatory fiat.

The rulemaking proposal was published in the Federal Register, May 6, 1993. The Forest Service took public comment until August, 1993. In response to the public comment the agency purports to detail how large gatherings have posed health, safety, traffic, and environmental risks in the past. The regulation takes effect on September 29, 1995.

The basic rationale used to justify implementing these grave restrictions on peaceable assembly is that large group gatherings in the National Forests have significant adverse impacts on forest resources, public health and safety, and the agency's ability to allocate space in the face of increasing constraints on the use of National Forest Lands. The alleged impacts include the spread of disease, pollution from inadequate site cleanup, soil compaction from inadequate site restoration, damage to archeological sites, and traffic congestion. The Forest Service says these regulations are "narrowly tailored to further significant government interest," because ALL gatherings of 75 or more people are to be regulated, regardless of whether the groups are exercising freedom of expression or not.

THE PROBLEM is that the factual accuracy of the agency's rationalizations is highly dubious. For example, although it may be self-evident that a large number of people walking on the earth will result in greater "soil compaction" than no people walking on the earth.

THE MAJOR PROBLEM WITH THE REGULATION IS THAT IT IRRATIONALLY EQUATES, the negligible environmental impacts of human beings in reverent communion with the earth, to the crippling impacts of mining, timbering and grazing planet rape.

The Forest Service responds to most, and makes minor concessions to a couple, of the comments submitted in response to the proposed rule (Federal Register, May 1993). Most noticeable is the apparent removal of the requirement for all groups who gather to apply for a permit to distribute noncommercial printed literature. THE PROBLEM with this is that the regulation itself does not distinguish between "commercial" and "noncommercial," but refers only to "distribution of printed material."

The Forest Service contends that by requiring itself to grant or deny a permit within 48 hours of an application they have perfected a "content neutral... reasonable, time, place and manner restriction." THE PROBLEM here is that, once a "permit" is granted, the determination of whether or not a permit holder has violated conditions of a permit is left entirely to the whim of the enforcement officer in the wilderness.

For years I have sought spiritual refuge in the National Forests, communing with nature and my fellow human beings in the cathedral of nature. This rule will affect me personally because it will require that I obtain a permit to exercise my religious beliefs. Whether they realize it or not, because the rule strikes at freedom of belief (thought) and association, I believe that every person in the United States will be adversely affected by this regulation.

A brief reminder on the origins of this great nation, it was founded by individuals who sought refuge from religious persecution in the forests of the "New World." The framers of the Constitution would have deemed it unimaginable, if not treasonous to require a "permit" for groups to peaceably assemble in public wilderness, and empower the government to imprison them should the people fail to disperse when ordered. For groups to seek refuge in the wilderness is a tradition that goes back at least to the Israelites fleeing the cultural persecution of Egypt. Even Tiananmen Square happened in a city were the governments can more reasonably argue that its actions were necessary to maintain public peace and order.

Perhaps the real PROBLEM is that most folks have become so accustomed to surrendering fundamental freedoms to incremental regulatory contro. It's not unusual to hear folks say, " Uh, you mean that we didn't have to have permits to gather in public forests before?. Frankly, a regulation like this couldn't be one of my top priorities; after all, I need a permit to drive my car, don't I?"

I hope you will seriously consider this issue, and possible methods of preserving this important aspect of individual freedom.

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