Judges uphold Forest Service's research efforts

By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI

Capital Press

A federal appeals court has refused to block a research project that environmentalists claimed would allow logging of old growth trees.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has rejected arguments by the environmental plaintiff -- League of Wilderness Defenders-Blue Mountain Biodiversity Project -- that the U.S. Forest Service violated environmental law.

The group claimed the agency insufficiently studied the 2,500-acre thinning project in Oregon's Deschutes National Forest.

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit has unanimously dismissed allegations that the agency's environmental impact statement, or EIS, was deficient.

"The EIS considers in detail a reasonable range of alternatives that would fulfill both of the project's goals by reducing the risk of wildfire and beetle infestation, and by addressing six specified research objectives," the ruling said. "The EIS is adequately supported by scientific data and takes a hard look at the significant impacts of the project."

The ruling is important because it upholds the Forest Service's ability to perform research within designated areas of national forests, said Ann Forest Burns, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry trade group.

"Clearly, it's called an experimental forest because its purpose is to conduct scientific study," she said.

There are about 80 experimental forests across the national forest system.

If the 9th Circuit had found that the Forest Service's project violated environmental law, it could have hamstrung the agency's ability to compare the effects of different thinning methods, Forest Burns said.

The agency undertook the project in 2010 to study different thinning treatments and to reduce the area's vulnerability to fire and bark beetle infestation.

The environmental group challenged the project in federal court, alleging that threats to the forest were exaggerated and that the research will cause 22,000 old growth trees to be removed from the area.

A federal judge threw out the case last year, ruling that the Forest Service had broad authority to conduct research in experimental forests.

The plaintiffs appealed to the 9th Circuit, arguing that the research was actually an "intensive logging project" that wasn't thoroughly studied in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.

The 9th Circuit's ruling indicated that the agency's review passed muster under NEPA largely because the project was within an experimental forest, said Sean Malone, an attorney for the environmental group.

"In terms of precedent, it's confined to experimental forests," he said.

League of Wilderness Defenders-Blue Mountain Biodiversity Project is planning to ask the 9th Circuit to reconsider the decision, said Ralph Bloemers, an attorney for the group.

The project is part of a broader pattern of rationalizing agency decisions, he said.

"There's been a trend to try to package logging as research," Bloemers said. "It seems like the commercial return from the logging is driving the project, rather than research."

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