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Judge halts BLM timber salvage

By Paul Fattig
Mail Tribune
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A federal judge in Eugene has permanently blocked timber salvage sales on U.S. Bureau of Land Management forestland burned by the 2002 Timbered Rock fire in the Elk Creek drainage.

The decision has the potential to impact similar salvage sales on other federal lands, including the Biscuit fire salvage in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

Concluding that the BLM’s decision to salvage the timber was "arbitrary, capricious and not otherwise in accordance with law," Judge Ann Aiken issued the permanent injunction for the Flaming Rock and Smoke Gobbler timber sales on Nov. 8.

The salvage sale plans called for logging some 17 million board feet of timber from 12,000 acres of the BLM’s Medford District land burned by the 27,000-acre fire.

However, both sales are in late-successional reserves, which are required under the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan to be managed to protect and enhance old-growth forest ecosystems to preserve related habitat.

Plaintiffs in the case filed last May charged that the salvage plans violated the law’s ability to protect old-growth forests designated as fish and wildlife habitat.

"This is really the first time we’ve had the court rule whether or not federal agencies can go in and log late successional reserves," said George Sexton, conservation director of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center in Ashland, one of the plaintiffs.

"That’s exactly what they are going to do in the Biscuit fire," he added, referring to salvage plans which would include some LSRs. "We think this is setting an important precedent."

The point, he said, is that the judge agreed that LSRs have been set aside to preserve habitat for old-growth species like salmon and spotted owls.

"The BLM’s single-minded focus on old-growth logging came back to bite them," he said.

Other plaintiffs included the Oregon Natural Resources Council, Northwest Environmental Defense Center, Cascadia Wildlands Project and Umpqua Watersheds.

Over at the Forest Service, officials are following the case closely, said Judy McHugh, spokeswoman for the Biscuit Fire Salvage Project. Several of those sales already face litigation.

"It would be fair to say we’re becoming familiar with the Timbered Rock situation," McHugh said late Monday. However, she would not comment further, citing the pending lawsuits involving the Biscuit fire sales.

Meanwhile, the BLM is assessing the ramifications of Aiken’s ruling on the Timbered Rock salvage sales, said Lance Nimmo, the BLM’s Butte Falls resource area manager.

"Our attorneys will make the decision whether we appeal it," he said. "Even if we appeal, it will take a good year-plus to get it resolved. Since all the timber we’re talking about is dead, it’s deteriorating constantly."

The commercial value of the timber is expected to further deteriorate by 17 to 20 percent from now until next spring, he said, adding he knows of nothing that would allow the salvage to move forward at that point.

"We have to determine at what point it’s uneconomical to salvage it at all," he said, noting that work done thus far has included road building, installation of culverts and removal of hazardous trees.

Nimmo also felt Aiken’s decision could impact other LSR salvage sales, including those in the Biscuit fire area.

"A lot of the issues are the same," he concluded.

The Flaming Rock unit, containing 10.2 million board feet of timber, had been sold to the Glendale-based Swanson Group. The Smoked Gobbler sale, which includes 6.8 million board feet of timber, was sold to Timber Products Co. Both were sold this past spring.

Agency officials had stressed that salvage was planned for about 8 percent of its burned land. About 95 percent of all trees, both dead and green, within the burned area would remain after the salvage is completed, according to BLM estimates.

But Aiken, who had issued a temporary injunction for the plaintiffs earlier this year, agreed with the plaintiffs on five of their six complaints.

The judge concurred that the BLM must protect the big old-growth snags in the LSRs to provide old-growth habitat, cannot cut timber in the name of research when similar opportunities exist outside the LSRs, cannot log on areas it knows will be difficult to regenerate and must look at the cumulative effects of new roads and the impact of salvage logging on adjacent 6,000 acres of Boise Corp. land.

Moreover, Aiken ruled that the BLM relied on an inappropriate model to calculate how many trees should be left in the LSRs.

However, the judge found that, contrary to the plaintiffs’ claims, the BLM had performed a legally adequate analysis of soil impacts.

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


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