THE FOREST Service's decision to suspend more than 1,500 permits for activities in national forests -- including weddings, mushroom-picking and hunting expeditions for the disabled -- should lead to more questions about the real motives of the agency that allegedly protects the nation's forests. The extraordinarily petty decision appears to have been an overly literal response to a judicial decision in the summer, which found that the Forest Service had illegally rewritten its rules and dispensed with required public consultations before harvesting timber in Sequoia National Forest. The judge ordered the Forest Service to return to previous rules, which required public consultation for major forest activities, such as commercial timber sales, oil drilling or mining.

Instead of abiding by the law, the Forest Service, whose lawyers say they were interpreting a judge's broad and vague orders, decided to create chaos and put everything up for public consultation and a 30-day comment period. Proof that this was a political ploy -- deliberately designed to wreak havoc and feed the opposition to public consultation -- lies in the fact that a pro-development group announced it would like to see a "full public discussion" of the harvesting of the Capitol Christmas tree and initiated procedures that would delay the tree's arrival in Washington. On Capitol Hill there has also been talk of overruling the judge legislatively, possibly through an upcoming appropriations bill.

Now the same judge has clarified his earlier ruling and stated that public consultation is required for major activities that affect trees and wildlife, not for routine use of the forests. Forest Service lawyers say they will abide by the decision. Maybe the agency, and its Agriculture Department overseer, former timber industry lobbyist Mark Rey, should also think harder about whether it wants to preserve whatever smidgen of neutrality is left of the nation's forest policy, too.