By JEFF BARNARD
GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) -- A federal judge on Wednesday ordered the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to sell more timber in Southern Oregon, and vacated a system federal scientists use to avoid harming the northern spotted owl.
The ruling out of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia came in a case filed by the timber industry against the Department of Interior.
Judge Richard J. Leon ruled that BLM has failed to consistently offer as much timber as called for in its 1995 resource management plans for the Medford and Roseburg districts since 2004.
And he found that a computer model used by government agencies to estimate spotted owl numbers in timber sale areas was adopted without input from the public, as required by the Administrative Procedures Act. He prohibited government agencies from using the protocol until it goes through a public comment process. The ruling did not address whether timber sales that have been sold based on the invalidated owl estimation protocol, but not yet cut, were still valid.
That portion of the ruling leaves the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service without a scientifically valid method of estimating whether spotted owls, a threatened species, can survive the harm from losing a portion of their forest habitat to logging, said Andy Stahl, director of the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, a conservation group. An earlier method was struck down in an earlier court ruling.
"It means, I suspect, that they will actually have to go look for them, which is something they have not wanted to do," he said.
BLM and Fish and Wildlife had no immediate comment on the ruling.
The timber industry called it a clear win, validating their longstanding position that a 1937 law known as the O&C Act sets timber production as the top priority for the BLM forests.
"This is clearly a victory for timber dependent communities in southwest Oregon, and it's a victory for the forest, that has not been managed appropriately," said Anne Forest Burns, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group involved in the lawsuit.
The judge ordered the agency to fulfill its obligation to meet 80 percent of the amount set in management plans in future years. The next fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
Burns estimated that BLM will have to offer double the timber it now sells on the Medford District, and increase it by 55 percent on the Roseburg District. The extra 54 million board feet would be enough to fuel more than 400 logging and mill jobs.
She noted that the extra timber will come too late for one of the plaintiffs, Rough & Ready Lumber Co., which shut its O'Brien sawmill last month for lack of logs.
But conservation groups that intervened in the timber portion of the lawsuit said BLM would have a hard time offering more timber for sale without Congress increasing their budget, and without violating other environmental laws, such as the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act.
Kristin Boyles, an attorney for Earthjustice, which represented conservation groups, said she felt an appeal was likely, from the government as well as conservation groups.