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Mushrooms, Christmas trees trimmed

By By BILL KETTLER
Mail Tribune
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A California federal court’s ruling in an environmental lawsuit last summer could cancel the mushroom-picking season on the Southern Oregon coast and limit Christmas tree cutting on U.S. Forest Service land around Grants Pass.

The ruling affects lands that were formerly the Siskiyou National Forest, but not lands that were formerly the Rogue River National Forest.

The two forests merged in October 2004 and are now known as the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

Activities such as mushroom picking and Christmas-tree cutting on U.S. Forest Service land that was formerly the Rogue River National Forest will go on as they did prior to the July ruling, said Forest Service spokeswoman Patti Burel.

The court in July ruled that the Forest Service must offer the public an opportunity to appeal nearly all the management decisions it makes.

Environmental laws require the Forest Service to study the environmental impact of major actions, but activities such as mushroom picking often have been excluded from environmental review under a procedure known as "categorical exclusion" on the theory that those actions did not have a significant environmental impact.

Environmental groups sued the Forest Service after it used the categorical exclusion to attempt to bypass citizen review of timber sales and post-fire timber salvage included in President George W. Bush’s Healthy Forests Initiative.

Forest Service officials say the court’s ruling forces them to seek public comment on activities such as mushroom picking. Many environmental activists say the agency is purposely construing the broadest possible interpretation of the ruling to make it seem much more far-reaching than it actually is.

"Our interpretation is that small-scale activities such as mushroom picking should not be affected by this ruling," said Stephanie Tidwell, executive director of Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center in Ashland.

Burel said the ruling will be applied differently on the two formerly independent forests because they used different procedures to administer their mushroom and Christmas tree programs.

The Siskiyou National Forest used a categorical exclusion to exempt its mushroom picking and Christmas tree cutting from environmental review; therefore the public must now have an opportunity to comment on them.

Burel said the Rogue River National Forest organized its mushroom picking and Christmas-tree cutting programs as part of its regular planning procedures, which means the ruling does not apply.

"They’re in compliance with this court ruling," she said.

For Rogue Valley residents, the ruling means people will be able to pick mushrooms and cut Christmas trees as they always have on the four ranger districts that were formerly the Rogue River National Forest: Prospect, Butte Falls, Applegate and Ashland.

The Siskiyou National Forest lands affected by the ruling include five ranger districts of Chetco, Galice, Gold Beach, Illinois Valley and Powers.

Burel said about 2,100 Christmas tree permits were issued on Siskiyou National Forest lands in 2004.

Burel said the public will have 30 days to offer comments. If no substantive issues are raised, the programs could resume, but if public comment identifies significant issues, forest planners will have to conduct an environmental review of the programs. The review process could easily extend beyond the end of the mushroom season, effectively canceling the season this year.

Burel said forest managers hope the public will understand that they are not creating a new layer of regulations, but just complying with the law. "We hope people will be patient with us."

Tidwell said forest managers are taking the ruling to the extreme.

"The idea of the categorical exclusion was that if something was routine and didn’t have a significant environmental impact, that it should proceed," she said.

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492, or e-mail bkettler@mailtribune.com.

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