Federal judge extends ban on logging old-growth trees

JEFF BARNARD; The Associated Press
The News Tribune


PORTLAND - A federal judge Thursday extended the ban on logging six old-growth timber sales in Oregon, ruling that the U.S. Forest Service violated environmental laws in evaluating the projects.

U.S. District Judge Garr King found that the Forest Service failed to survey for rare plants and animals that depend on old-growth forests to survive, as required by the Northwest Forest Plan. The judge also found that the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to include the public in its decisions.

The ruling applies directly to two timber sales in the Mount Hood National Forest and four timber sales in the Willamette National Forest.

But environmentalists hope the ruling will persuade the Forest Service to turn to younger trees to meet timber harvest goals and leave standing mature and old-growth stands within the area designated for logging under the Northwest Forest Plan, said Doug Heiken of the Oregon Natural Resources Council.

"Citizens spent weeks and months searching for rare species in these old-growth forests hoping they would be protected," Heiken said. "The agency kind of slammed the door in their face. I hope this decision encourages the Forest Service to be better at involving the public and better at protecting old-growth forests."

Forest Service officials did not have an immediate reaction to the ruling and had not decided whether to appeal.

"We're looking at it closely to figure out where we go from here," said Rex Holloway, spokesman for the Forest Service's Northwest region.

King said he would hear arguments Nov. 7 on granting a permanent injunction, leaving unclear exactly what the Forest Service must do to make its environmental assessments comply with the ruling.

The timber industry has warned that the Northwest Forest Plan, adopted in 1994 to balance timber interests with the preservation of habitat for the northern spotted owl and salmon, will never meet its promised timber harvest without cutting small stands of old growth.

Robbie Robinson, president of Starfire Lumber in Cottage Grove, Ore., said he was not sure how he would keep his mill operating without the logs that were to come off the Straw Devil timber sale in the Willamette National Forest, because his mill specializes in products that can only be cut from big logs.

He added that he was most disappointed in the Forest Service for assuring him that a court challenge would not stop the sale.

"I asked some very specific questions of these people," Robinson said. "Have you covered all the bases. Are there going to be court challenges that cannot be defended. I was assured that none of those were true.

"We spent a lot of money up there, and we don't have anything to show for it. We reconstructed roads. We spent $150,000 on that. We made a $90,000 deposit on the sale. We've gotten to log a total of eight acres."

At one point there were more than 150 timber sales in Washington, Oregon and Northern California that carried similar environmental assessments that would be vulnerable to a lawsuit like this one. But many have already been logged or have been withdrawn, Heiken said.

The Northwest Forest Plan set aside 6.9 million acres of old growth and younger trees in large blocks where commercial logging was prohibited to protect habitat for northern spotted owls and other species. These reserves amount to 28 percent of the 24.5 million acres of national forest west of the Cascade Range in Washington, Oregon and Northern California.

Environmentalists have continued to fight to save small blocks of big trees - 1.1 million acres in all - still scattered over the 4.6 million acres where commercial logging is allowed. The mature timber and old growth on these lands amounts to 14 percent of the 8 million acres of mature and old growth trees on federal lands.

Judge King granted a preliminary injunction Aug. 1 stopping work on the Solo-Lone and Borg timber sales in the Mount Hood National Forest and the Straw Devil, East Devil, Pryor and Clark timber sales in the Willamette National Forest. They cover a total of 545 acres.


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