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Activists applaud ruling on timber sales.

Byline: Scott Maben The Register-Guard

A federal judge ruled Thursday against the U.S. Forest Service in the latest skirmish over how thoroughly the government looks for and protects wildlife before allowing the logging of old growth timber.

Environmental leaders said the decision should lead forest managers to reconsider old growth logging plans up and down the Cascades.

"The main outcome of this ruling is that hundreds of acres of old growth will be protected and the government will not be able to make these kinds of backroom decisions about old growth without involving the public," said Doug Heiken, a Eugene-based representative of the Oregon Natural Resources Council.

U.S. District Judge Garr King in Portland found that the Forest Service prepared inadequate environmental reviews and failed to publicly disclose wildlife survey results and related decisions for six timber sales in the Willamette and Mount Hood national forests.

The sales total 574 acres and include some trees as old as 500 years, according to plaintiffs in the case. Five of the sales were partially cut before the judge ordered a temporary halt to logging in late July.

The resources council and the American Lands Alliance in Washington, D.C., argued that Forest Service surveyors overlooked the presence of red tree vole nests and that the omissions warrant a closer examination of how the logging might harm wildlife such as the vole.

The small rodent lives in treetops and is a primary source of food for the threatened northern spotted owl.

The judge agreed and said the agency violated the National Environmental Policy Act for the Clark, Pryor, East Devil and Straw Devil sales in the Willamette forest and the Borg and Solo/Lone sales in the Mount Hood forest.

The suit alleged that the Forest Service surveyed for rare species in some but not all old growth stands in the sale areas and, that though the agency reduced the size of the sales to protect some wildlife habitat, it allowed logging to proceed where vole nests were found by citizens doing their own survey work.

King's decision should prompt the Forest Service to re-evaluate other timber sales that include older trees in Oregon, Washington and Northern California, said Pete Frost, the Eugene attorney representing the plaintiffs.

"The agency should take it upon itself to comply with this ruling and properly survey any old growth timber sale before allowing logging," Frost said.

Environmentalists won a similar court victory in 1999 after suing the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management for failing to complete required surveys before some timber sales were awarded to logging companies.

As a result, the agencies agreed to do the required survey work for scores of timber sales, in turn delaying logging of several million board feet for timber. Some still has not been cut, postponed by disputes over wildlife surveys.

Rex Holloway, a Forest Service spokesman in Portland, said he didn't know if the agency would apply the ruling beyond the six sales named in the suit.

"We're definitely going to have to take a look at this ruling and see if it has any implications to the rest of our (timber sale) program," Holloway said.

He didn't know if the Forest Service would appeal the ruling, he said.

Robbie Robinson, president of Starfire Lumber Co. of Cottage Grove, said he's worried the ruling could tie up many more timber sales that sawmills have been counting on for years.

"The question becomes how many other sales are in the same boat?" said Robinson, whose sawmill purchased the Straw Devil sale in 1998. "I just got to believe this is not an isolated situation. The long-range ramifications of this could be big."

Starfire cut 8 acres of the 84-acre sale last summer before King stopped the logging. The company had hoped to finish the work next year, but that's out of the question now, Robinson said.

He said he's finding some timber to buy elsewhere, but is unsure about the company's future if he can't fulfill the Straw Devil contract soon.

"It's important for a company to have a certain amount of standing timber to operate with," Robinson said. "We have 70 people here plus their families that depend on this volume."

The Forest Service and the BLM are required to survey for rare plants and animals before logging federal timber, building roads, expanding ski resorts and other activities. The "survey and manage" guidelines are part of President Clinton's 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, designed to protect more than 24 million acres of federal forests in the region.

While environmentalists have had success in court defending the survey program, the timber industry also has challenged the rules, complaining that they're unnecessary and slow the process of selling public timber.

The Bush administration earlier this year proposed abolishing the survey rules in a settlement of a lawsuit brought by timber interests.

If that happens, the agencies would have to halt surveys of insects, amphibians, mollusks, fungi and other species and suspend related efforts to protect them.

None of the mostly obscure plants or animals is shielded by the Endangered Species Act, but all are on a watch list for potential future listing.

King has scheduled a Nov. 7 hearing to decide whether to continue an injunction halting the six sales.
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Title Annotation:A judge finds the Forest Service failed to prepare adequate environmental reviews and to disclose wildlife survey results; Environment
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Oct 10, 2003
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