Photo by Ellen Miller

Thursday, July 7, 2011

BLM's withdrawal of western Oregon logging plan resets the argument

Abandoning a logging plan for Bureau of Land Management forests in western Oregon either repairs a Bush-administration mistake or shows Pres. Obama is "unfriendly" to rural America, depending on your perspective.

No surprise -- environmentalists and the timber industry have vastly different takes on the BLM's recommendation that a federal judge toss out the Western Oregon Plan Revisions.

Conservation groups welcomed the news, saying the logging plan was legally flawed. An industry group said the decision ruins five years of planning and called it “outrageous.”

Meanwhile, the BLM says the action won’t immediately affect timber sales, which are already low, one way or the other.

The 2008 plan, known as WOPR and invariably pronounced "whopper," would have increased logging on about 2.2 million acres of BLM forests in western Oregon.

But it's been booted back and forth in the federal courts ever since. It was withdrawn in 2009, restored by a federal judge in Washington, D.C. in March 2011 and now may be killed by a federal judge in Portland. In papers filed in U.S. District Court late Friday afternoon, the BLM said the plan should be remanded and vacated -- kicked back and tossed out.

The filing was in response to a lawsuit brought by a coalition of conservation groups, including Pacific Rivers Council and Oregon Wild.

The WOPR issue is a second example of how settlement of the Northwest's critical natural resource issues was delayed by the Bush administration "trying to cut corners scientifically and legally," said Kristen Boyles, an attorney with Earthjustice in Seattle.

A northern spotted owl recovery plan, drafted under Bush, was remanded in 2010. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which had written it, agreed the owl plan was scientifically flawed, marred by political manipulation and legally indefensible. It was revised and released last week.

On the WOPR, the Obama administration agreed the logging plan should have been reviewed by Fish & Wildlife and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Failing to do so violated the Endangered Species Act, U.S. Justice Department attorneys said. The BLM "sees no choice but to concede error" and vacate the plan, federal attorneys wrote.

"They should have been consulted on how this affects habitat, critters and water," Earthjustice attorney Boyles said. "Had they done that some time ago, we might be beyond this."

But the Portland-based American Forest Resource Council said the filing destroys "five years of the best planning and science" and leaves the BLM with "no clear direction going forward."

"I can only use the word 'outrageous' for the filing the BLM made on Friday," said group spokeswoman Ann Forest Burns. The council represents forest product manufacturers and landowners.

"In the current economy, with rural economies on their knees and with the administration saying what it really wants is to create jobs, what jobs are going to be created? More government jobs?" Burns asked.

The BLM could have consulted with the wildlife and fisheries agencies at any time in the past couple years, Burns said, and the plan could have been remanded without killing it.

Meanwhile, BLM spokesman Michael Campbell said the legal maneuvering won't affect timber sales in the short-term. Anticipating a forest management "transition" as WOPR replaced the Clinton administration's Northwest Forest Plan, the agency planned timber sales that would be allowed under either.

However, the BLM acknowledges falling short of its western Oregon harvest target of 200 million board feet annually. Since 1995 the agency has averaged about 140 million board feet per year, Campbell said.

The legal gridlock places greater emphasis on three BLM pilot projects begun by veteran forest experts Norm Johnson and Jerry Franklin. The restoration projects near Medford, Roseburg and Coos Bay are intended to find the balance between harvest and habitat.

"We understand we're obligated to look at different ways to put forth some timber," Campbell said. "At the same time, we recognize the need to protect species and habitat."

Burns, of the American Forest Resource Council, said the pilot projects demonstrate a particular silviculture system but have limited application to forest management.

The BLM's western Oregon forests, spread over 18 counties, once belonged to the Oregon & California Railroad. Federal legislation in 1937 put the O&C lands under the jurisdiction of the Department of Interior, with the stipulation that they be managed on a sustained yield basis to produce a permanent timber supply and revenue for the counties. The legislation also directed the department to protect watersheds, regulate streams and provide recreational facilities.

--Eric Mortenson

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