The U.S. Forest Service (search) violated federal environmental laws when it used a toxic fire retardant that killed thousands of fish in streams, a judge ruled.

In a decision released Tuesday, District Judge Donald W. Molloy (search) said the agency did not comply with the National Environmental Policy Act when it skipped an open public process to examine the fire retardant's effects on the environment.

Molloy also said the agency's actions appeared to be politically motivated, though he did not elaborate.

Environmentalists and Democrats have complained the Bush administration goals of repealing environmental laws affect Forest Service decisions.

The Forest Service had argued that the use of fire retardant was not a major federal action, but a series of smaller actions by fire commanders with no time to do a full environmental analysis.

Forest Service spokeswoman Heidi Valetkevitch (search) said the agency would review the ruling but normally does not comment on legal matters.

Molloy ordered the Forest Service to prepare an environmental analysis of fire retardant and consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the potential harm to endangered fish.

An environmental watchdog group sued the Forest Service in 2003, a year after more than 20,000 fish were killed when toxic retardant was dropped in Fall Creek in central Oregon.

Andy Stahl (search), executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (search), hoped the ruling would force the government to manage wildfires as a natural part of the ecosystem, instead of fighting them like a war.

"It's a wake-up call to say, `Hey, you've got to look at the big picture,"' Stahl said. "There are alternatives and we need to get smarter about fire."