Appeals court allows logging Oregon old growth
GRANTS PASS, Ore. – A federal appeals court Friday cleared the way for logging to resume in an old growth forest reserve at a national forest in Oregon to protect northern spotted owl habitat from being lost to wildfire.
In a 2-to-1 decision by a three-judge panel, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court ruling that had stopped the Five Buttes project on the Deschutes National Forest.
The appeals court found the project was within the limits of the Northwest Forest Plan, which set up a system of old growth forest reserves in 1994 in Oregon, Washington and Northern California, where logging was strictly limited to protect habitat for threatened species such as spotted owls and salmon. The ruling also found that the Forest Service analysis of the environmental impacts of the logging was sufficient.
Building on a 2008 Idaho case in which the full appeals court decided it was time to stop second-guessing the Forest Service on scientific issues, the ruling represents a victory for timber industry efforts to press for more logging in old growth forests in the name of reducing the threat of wildfire.
"This is a step-by-step process that we are enhancing the agencies' ability to do their land management," said Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group that intervened in the case.
He said the victory was particularly encouraging as a sign of a new direction for national forests, because it reversed one of the few rulings by U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan in Eugene to go against the Forest Service.
The ruling was a blow to conservation groups that have long depended on the 9th Circuit during the past 20 years of frequent and bitter legal battles over logging in old growth forests, during which timber output has dropped by more than 90 percent.
"Oregonians expect public old-growth reserves to be protected for imperiled wildlife and recreational opportunities, not aggressively logged for profit," said Josh Laughlin of Cascadia Wildlands, a plaintiff in the case. "The government needs to be more accountable to the people and to species in decline."
The majority opinion was written by Justice Milan Smith, the brother of former U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., and an appointee of President George W. Bush, whose administration tried and failed to scrap the Northwest Forest Plan in order to allow more logging.
Smith wrote that the Northwest Forest Plan allowed logging in old growth reserves if it would reduce the risks of wildfire that would otherwise destroy habitat, as long as it did not prevent the reserves from fulfilling their habitat role in the long run.
Smith noted that as part of its environmental impact statement, the Forest Service had done a computer simulation that found an extremely high risk that spotted owl habitat would be lost to wildfire without thinning in the reserve. No logging was planned for areas occupied by owls, and although logged areas would need up to 50 years to return to prime owl habitat, on balance it was reasonable to accept a lower grade of owl habitat if it meant less risk of losing it to fire.
Smith had harsh words for the dissent written by Judge Richard Paez, a President Bill Clinton appointee, calling his position "extreme," and noting that the entire court had decided in 2008 to give deference to the Forest Service on science matters.
Paez wrote that the lower court ruling should stand, because the Forest Service never gave a meaningful or consistent assessment of the risk that wildfire or insects would harm spotted owl habitat in the reserve.
In the original ruling, Hogan had found the Northwest Forest Plan generally requires logging in old growth reserves to focus on younger trees and not harm habitat for spotted owls. He also ordered the Forest Service to consider more scientific evidence on the issue, including views opposed to its own, and factor in the accumulated environmental harm caused by past logging projects.
Mollie Chaudet, a case management specialist for the Deschutes National Forest, said the ruling affirmed the care with which the Forest Service makes decisions on issues like logging in old growth. The Five Buttes Project, about 50 miles south of Bend, was an important part of efforts to prevent large fires that have burned spotted owl habitat in the past, she said.