A coalition of environmental and conservation groups have sued the U.S. Forest Service, accusing the agency of playing "a shell game" with the public over the use of national forest land.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Missoula, Mont., specifically challenges the agency's management plan for the 2.5-million-acre Idaho Panhandle National Forests.But plaintiffs said any court decision could conceivably affect Forest Service plans for all 156 national forests covering about 200 million acres of public land.

"We intend to set a precedent for the entire national forest system here," said Dr. John Osborn, a Spokane, Wash., physician who is coordinator of the Inland Empire Public Lands Council.

The suit asks the federal court to reaffirm that the Forest Service's Panhandle plan must contain land allocation and other decisions to ensure multiple uses that can be appealed. It also claims that the Forest Service has made decisions to enter areas without roads without providing a sufficient or rational explanation.

"It is clear that the Forest Service documents on the Idaho Panhandle National Forests do not disclose information sufficient to make critical decisions, particularly on areas without roads," Osborn said at a news conference in Coeur d'Alene.

"We have waited 12 years and spent millions for each forest plan. What we've come to find is that the Forest Service is not making decisions on forest plans, but instead plans to do more planning . . . . In essence, the Forest Service is playing a shell game here with public resources," Osborn said.

Others joining the lands council in the suit were the Idaho Environmental Council, the Idaho Sportsmen, Idaho Conservation League, Idaho Wildlife Federation and the Northern Rockies chapter of the Sierra Club.

Named as defendants are U.S. Forest Service chief F. Dale Robertson; John Mumma, regional forester in Missoula, and the Forest Service.

Companion court motions will be filed within weeks, said Corrie Yackulic, attorney with the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund in Seattle, which drew up the suit. The motions will ask the court to declare that the Forest Service violated environmental laws when it issued its Panhandle plan, and seek an injunction barring the agency from entering Panhandle areas without roads, Yackulic said.

Beth Horn of the Forest Service public affairs office in Missoula said Thursday that government officials had not yet reviewed the suit.

In Coeur d'Alene, Panhandle National Forests spokesman Allen Gibbs said court motions would be handled by Justice Department attorneys and the regional forester's office.

"Obviously, we feel that the way we've been implementing the forest plan is legal and correct, and that we are on line. I guess because Dr. Osborn and his counsel do not agree with it, they've chosen to go to court seeking resolution of those different points of view," Gibbs said. "Time will tell."

Gibbs agreed that the suit could have ramifications on all Forest Service plans.

"You never know where some of these decisions are finally going to end up. If a precedent is set, whether it's one that supports us or them, then that becomes a precedent available to be used in the 9th (U.S.) Circuit Court of Appeals. There's always that possibility," Gibbs said.

The suit springs from an Aug. 15 decision in which the Forest Service denied part of an appeal which 19 conservation groups filed against the Panhandle management plan. That decision lifted a stay on timber sales in areas without roads that the groups had earlier won.