Timber project derailed, for now
A major timber project in a Northeast Oregon national forest will be enjoined, but the impact on logging remains unclear.
A federal appeals court has ruled that the U.S. Forest Service unlawfully approved the 29,000-acre project in Oregon’s Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has decided that the Snow Basin thinning and fuels treatment project should be enjoined, but has not specified the scope of the injunction.
That task will be carried out by U.S. District Judge Marco Hernandez, who previously found that an injunction was unwarranted because the project complied with environmental law.
The 9th Circuit has now overturned Hernandez’s ruling but has given him broad leeway in deciding what activities should be blocked.
While the judge may decide it’s necessary to stop the entire Snow Basin project, he may craft a more “narrowly tailored” injunction to preserve the status quo, the 9th Circuit said.
“In this case, the district court could consider, for example, limiting the injunction to specific areas of elk habitat or to trees above a certain diameter at breast height,” the ruling said.
Timber companies involved in the litigation are currently negotiating with environmental groups over the scope of the injunction.
Scott Horngren, attorney for the timber companies, said he hopes to reach a resolution that allows some thinning to occur this summer.
However, the matter may entail more litigation, he said. “We’re prepared to fight.”
Tom Buchele, attorney for the environmental plaintiffs, said he’s pleased with the 9th Circuit’s conclusions.
The appellate court made it clear that short-term economic considerations do not outweigh irreparable environmental harms in deciding whether an injunction is necessary, he said.
The 9th Circuit rejected several arguments by the plaintiffs but agreed that the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act in one respect.
A comprehensive study of the project relied on a “travel management plan” to determine impacts to elk habitat, but that plan was later withdrawn, the ruling said.
That change has rendered the study “deficient” and requires the Forest Service to complete additional analysis, the 9th Circuit held.
The agency should be able to correct this procedural problem fairly quickly, but the ruling could be “major disruption” depending on the scope of the injunction, Horngren said.