By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
A federal judge has refused to block logging operations on a 28,500-acre vegetation management project in Oregon's Wallowa Whitman National Forest.
Environmental groups had asked for a preliminary injunction against commercial logging based on alleged violations of the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
The Snow Basin Vegetation Management Project is aimed at reducing the risk of disturbance to the forest through wildfire and insect infestations, but the environmental plaintiffs claim the removal of large trees will outweigh these benefits.
U.S. District Judge Marco Hernandez has ruled that the League of Wilderness Defenders/Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project and the Hells Canyon Preservation Council failed to show that an injunction was warranted.
The project would allow for commercial logging on 11,500 acres of the national forest, plus road building and non-commercial treatments designed to reduce fuels.
While there is the possibility of irreparable harm from large tree removal, other factors don't weigh in favor of stopping timber sales, the judge said.
Much of the environmental groups' arguments against logging focused on the U.S. Forest Service's analysis of the effects on threatened bull trout, but the judge ruled that the agency's studies were sufficient.
Hernandez also held that the agency took the requisite "hard look" at the impacts of livestock grazing in the forest. According to the Forest Service, thinning will boost range conditions in the long term, improving livestock distribution throughout the forest.
The plaintiffs were unlikely to "succeed on the merits" of these and other claims, and didn't prove that the scale tips in their favor in regard to the greater public interest, the judge said.
Tom Buchele, an attorney for the environmental groups, said he would not comment on the ruling beyond the fact that they are challenging it before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Scott Horngren, attorney for timber groups and other interests that intervened in the case, said the project takes a landscape view of forest management that environmental groups say they support.
"What they're planning to do is good for the forest and good for the economy," he said, noting that the logging will benefit four sawmills that employ more than 300 people in the region.
Horngren said he hopes the 9th Circuit agrees with Hernandez in the case, as the forest is facing a high risk of wildfires this summer from lightning strikes.