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Ruling Blocks Timber Sales

by Craig Welch
Seattle Times - June 1, 2001

Court says salmon impact wasn't considered

Several hundred Northwest timber sales in thousands of acres of forests - including some old-growth - remain indefinitely on hold as befuddled federal agencies sort through a court ruling yesterday that asserts they illegally approved logging in threatened salmon habitat.

In yet another gut punch to the region's dwindling federal-land timber harvests, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a Seattle judge was correct in deciding the government hadn't considered the short-term or cumulative impacts timber harvests would have on threatened coho salmon runs.

Instead, the agencies were looking 10 to 20 years into the future and deciding that each sale would not, by itself, affect the overall health of the watershed.

The decision will affect millions of board feet of federal-land timber harvests in areas of Northern California, Washington and Oregon.

Environmentalists and fishing groups who brought the initial suit argued it would force the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and National Marine Fisheries Service to weigh the impact of every timber sale on the immediate health of fisheries.

"It's a complete victory for science-based forestry," said Glen Spain, with the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman's Associations, the plaintiff in the initial suit.

"You have to plan timber sales so they are more salmon-friendly, and help undo the damage done in the past. This isn't intended to halt the whole timber-sale program - just the salmon-killer timber sales."

The case, stemming from a 1999 lawsuit in Roseburg, Ore., initially involved only a few dozen timber sales. But U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein ordered the timber sales halted until the government could show fish would not be harmed and the sales complied with the Clinton administration's 1994 Northwest Forest Plan and the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

She later ordered logging halted on 170 parcels throughout the region on the same grounds.

The appeals panel found that the fisheries service couldn't back up its contention that new growth on clear-cut land would compensate for any habitat loss associated with logging.

The Northwest Forest Plan, in response to the ESA listing of the northern spotted owl, is aimed at balancing the demand for timber from public lands with the need to protect habitat for dwindling populations of fish and wildlife. It reduced timber harvests by roughly 80 percent from levels of the 1980s.

Environmentalists contend the ruling validates the Northwest Forest Plan. But industry groups contend the ruling is evidence the forest plan has clamped federal-land timber harvests in a death grip, while promising to provide sustainable harvests.

"We are shocked and dismayed," said Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council. "Clearly the Northwest Forest Plan is very broken now, and it's time to take a new look."

Regardless, public-land managers - some of whom were quite surprised by the ruling - weren't sure how to proceed. At the Bureau of Land Management, where recent lawsuits have sent timber sales plummeting from 258 million board feet in fiscal year 1998 to less than 70 million this year and last, officials were scurrying to gauge whether the decision would allow them to rework the sales or simply shelve them for good.

"On one hand, it may mean we may not be able to offer any timber sales in those riparian areas," said BLM spokesman Chris Strebig. "At the other end, it may mean that we'll have to write up biological assessments timber sale by timber sale."

Forest Service officials said they fully intend to work with the other agencies to find a way to make the sales more palatable.

"The court's not saying `These are bad sales, they're not good for water,' " said Forest Service spokesman Rex Holloway by phone from Portland. "What they're saying is you need to look on a more site-specific basis and more short-term and then see what you think."

Activists, however, said it may be unlikely that the agencies continue to pursue such efforts to sell timber.

"You can't do logging the way you used to," said Andy Stahl, with Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.

"You can't do big clear-cuts. You don't build roads. What this clearly means is it's back to the drawing board, or these sales will just dry up and blow away."

Related Links:
You can read the logging decision online. The case is Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Association Inc. v. National Marine Fisheries Service, 99-36027. The Web address is

Craig Welch
Ruling Blocks Timber Sales
Seattle Times, June 1, 2001

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