Forest Service under political pressure to abandon project
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
An Oregon sawmill has found itself in a tough spot after a judge blocked a logging project in the Willamette National Forest.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin has stopped the harvest of trees in the 140-acre Trapper timber sale until the U.S. Forest Service completes another environmental review of the project.
Timber from the project was sold to the Seneca Sawmill Co., of Eugene, Ore., in 2003.
The trees slated for harvest were about 120 to 150 years old with an average diameter of about two feet -- high-quality logs that will be difficult to replace, said Dale Riddle, the sawmill's vice president for legal affairs.
Most of the other timber coming off federal land is small-diameter logs from thinning projects, he said.
"We do not have enough wood of this caliber," Riddle said. "That doesn't mean we're going to have a closure necessarily, but at some point it will have a negative effect."
The price of logs has strengthened due to limited supplies even as the demand for finished lumber has remained low, he said. "We're put in a squeeze, basically."
Seneca Sawmill Co. voluntarily intervened in the lawsuit over the timber sale as a defendant, which means it can appeal Coffin's ruling, he said. The company is considering that option, though it hasn't made any decisions.
"This is, as a matter of principle and economics, important to us," Riddle said.
Even so, the process of getting the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to rule on the decision would be more complicated and may take longer than simply waiting for the Forest Service to finish an updated environmental assessment, he said.
The agency is facing a lot of political pressure to simply drop the project entirely, Riddle said. Seneca expects harvest to be delayed by at least one logging season, but can't make any predictions beyond that.
In light of new information about spotted owls and other sensitive species inhabiting the project area, the Forest Service will probably be reluctant to move forward with logging, said Doug Heiken, conservation and restoration coordinator for Oregon Wild.
Oregon Wild and another environmental group, Cascadia Wildlands, filed the lawsuit against the agency that resulted in the recent injunction.
"We don't need to find new ways of logging old growth forest," Heiken said. "It's the next cohort to grow into fabulous old growth habitat."
Even if the agency does allow logging after updating its environmental assessment, the project would likely be scaled down, said Dan Kruse, legal director of Cascadia Wildlands, another environmental group. "It would definitely change the timber sale significantly if they decide to go forward with a new analysis."
The Forest Service designed the Trapper project to emulate post-wildfire conditions. The idea was to study how the forest recuperates from such a catastrophic disturbance over 260 years.
In his ruling, Coffin pointed to a letter from three Forest Service scientists which said the project's research value is "very low" at this point compared to when the agency began planning it in the late 1990s.
The judge ordered the Forest Service to reconsider the project's "learning value" as well as contradictory evidence about its effect on northern spotted owls, a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
Heiken, of Oregon Wild, said the agency should have conducted such experiments when there were still abundant old growth stands in the national forests.
The agency could resume such studies when more existing stands develop old growth characteristics, he said. Until then, the priority should be restoration work.
"The Forest Service should focus on thinning young stands," Heiken said. "Right now, we have a huge overabundance of young plantations."