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Magistrate halts contested timber sale

By Paul Fattig
Mail Tribune
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A federal court magistrate in Medford wants the Bureau of Land Management to go back to the environmental drawing board with a controversial timber sale challenged by conservation groups.

Monday’s summary finding and recommendation by U.S. District Magistrate John P. Cooney determined the BLM’s Pickett Snake timber sale bordering the Rogue River west of Grants Pass violates the agency’s Medford District resources management plan as well as the National Environmental Policy Act, also known as NEPA.

His decision will now go to U.S. District Court Judge Michael Hogan in Eugene for final approval.

The plaintiffs and the BLM have until Jan. 29 to file objections.

The lawsuit was filed a year ago today by four environmental groups concerned that logging would harm sensitive plants and mar views from the Wild and Scenic Rogue River.

The groups are particularly concerned about the impacts of logging on the clustered ladyslipper and mountain ladyslipper — types of lilys on the sensitive species list. Logging is also planned around the largest population of the Gentner’s fritillary, a bulbous plant on the endangered list.

"If Judge Hogan supports the recommendations as we expect him to, the BLM will have to do a new NEPA analysis and change the prescription for the sale," said Brenna Bell, staff attorney for the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, one of the four plaintiffs.

"We hope they just drop the sale altogether," she added. "Our hope is that the BLM, after this lawsuit, will realize that moving forward with old-growth timber sales is a road to nowhere."

In addition to the wildlands center, other environmental groups involved in the lawsuit include Headwaters, the Siskiyou Regional Education Center and the Oregon Natural Resources Council.

The BLM and its attorney will review the case, said Abby Jossie, field manager for the BLM’s Grants Pass Resource Area.

She noted that Cooney did find in favor of the BLM on several points, including its aquatic conservation strategy and accumulative impacts analysis.

Logging is only part of the Pickett Snake project, which also includes brush-clearing and other measures to imitate healthy changes fires make to forestland, according to the BLM.

"It includes a lot of fuels reduction work," she said, noting that is part of an effort to reduce wildfire impact.

The sale calls for cutting 7.5 million board feet of timber over 1,116 acres, using a mix of cable, tractor and helicopter logging.

Swanson-Superior Lumber Co. of Glendale bought the sale at a 2002 auction for $837,894. It has yet to be awarded.

Although the plan would remove trees with diameters ranging from 8 inches to 54 inches, 90 percent of the volume will come from trees 20 inches thick or less, officials said.

The finding comes at a time when many local BLM timber sale appeals have been upheld at the Interior Board of Land Appeals in Arlington, Va., Jossie observed. The IBLA is an administrative appeals board for the Department of Interior.

Within the past month, the IBLA has affirmed a BLM decision for the Poor Angora’s Folly in the Glendale Resource Area and denied requests for stays on the North Trail and the South Trail timber sales near Butte Falls and the Scattered Apples timber sale in the Williams area, officials said.

However, the IBLA has yet to rule on the merits of the latter three sales. Those sales can be litigated if an administrative appeal is denied.

"We are spending a significant amount of time and funding on these (appeals and litigation)," Jossie said.

Some two dozen sales are currently being litigated or administratively appealed in the district, officials estimate.

Environmental groups aren’t opposed to all BLM projects involving logging, attorney Brenna said.

For instance, they support the Rogue River Hazardous Fuel Reduction Project that would thin nearly 8,700 acres, most of it on BLM land, along the recreational section of the river between the confluence of the Applegate River downstream to the mouth of Grave Creek, she said. That project would result in brush and small-diameter trees being cut.

"What we’re opposed to is cutting old-growth timber," she said.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com

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