Five environmental groups want a judge to make sure Oregonians have one last chance to protest an aggressive Bush administration logging plan proposed for Western Oregon forests.
The groups — Oregon Wild, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, The Wilderness Society, Pacific Rivers Council and Cascadia Wildlands Project — filed a complaint in federal court on Wednesday, saying the Bureau of Land Management didn’t follow federal law in regard to the Western Oregon Plan Revision, a management strategy that would release the agency from the logging limits imposed by the Northwest Forest Plan and increase logging on 2.2 million acres of public forests by 335 percent.
The BLM has been working on the new plan for years and released a final environmental impact statement in October that outlines where and how it will log 588 million board feet annually in forests from Portland south to the California border.
Under normal circumstances, after publication of the final plan the agency would allow a 30-day protest period to allow those who have previously been involved in the planning process to raise concerns, BLM spokesman Michael Campbell said.
But intense interest in the proposal from both the timber industry and conservationists prompted the BLM to cancel the protest period. Instead of allowing BLM state director Edward Shepard to sign off on the final document, the agency has kicked it up the administrative ladder. It will be signed by the assistant secretary of land and minerals management, Campbell said.
The BLM received close to 30,000 comments on the draft of the plan last winter.
Campbell said that protest periods only apply to documents signed by state directors or district managers. Those decisions can be protested and appealed to higher level BLM administrators, but final decisions get made at the secretary level, Campbell said.
“By having him sign it, we are effectively forgoing the protest period,” Campbell said.
However, lawyers representing the environmental groups say current federal regulations don’t allow the agency to waive the protest period.
“They’re rewriting the rules,” said Daniel Kruse, legal director for Cascadia Wildlands Project. “Our complaint alleges that’s a new regulation they’re trying to push forward. ... We think making a good decision should take precedence over making a quick decision.”
The environmentalists say that rushing the final proposal is an attempt to rubber stamp the management plan before a new administration takes over.
Early in the process, the BLM had planned to allow the protest period. Agency newsletters and the Web site spelled out the steps to complete the Western Oregon Plan Revision. On those charts, a 30-day protest period was slated to coincide with the 60-day review period given to Gov. Ted Kulongoski. The governor, who received the plan in early October, has the opportunity to make sure it aligns with state laws.
But BLM and U.S. Department of the Interior administrators later chose to eliminate the protest option, Campbell said.
“We made a decision over the course of the summer that this would be a more prudent way to move forward,” he said.
Canceling the protest also allows the agency to meet a court deadline. The new management plan is the result of a settlement between the timber industry and the BLM that requires the agency to comply by the end of 2008.
While the complaint was filed in a Portland federal court on Wednesday, lawyers expect to file a request this week for a preliminary injunction, so that people will have an opportunity to protest before the 30-day period expires on Nov. 17, said Kristen Boyles, an EarthJustice attorney representing the plaintiffs.
“It’s an important decision about how millions of acres of land are going to be managed. It’s a shame that at the end, the Bush administration has decided to close the door on the process,” Boyles said.
The lack of public protest doesn’t mean other federal agencies won’t be weighing in.
The Environmental Protection Agency, which had criticized the draft version of the plan for its failure to adequately protect rivers and streams that provide drinking water for residents and habitat for fish at risk of extinction, will submit comments on the final environmental impact statement, said Christine Reichgott of the EPA’s Seattle office. The agency has until Dec. 1 to complete its comments.