JEFF BARNARD

Associated Press

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) -- A federal magistrate recommended Thursday that a Bush administration plan to double logging on some federal lands in western Oregon should be vacated.

U.S. Magistrate Judge James Hubel found that the Bureau of Land Management failed to properly consult federal biologists over the potential harm to endangered species like the northern spotted owl before adopting the Western Oregon Plan Revision, known as the WOPR.

His recommendation must be approved by a federal judge. If it is endorsed, the Bush-era plan would be replaced by the Northwest Forest Plan, which was adopted in 1994 to settle bitter court battles to protect spotted owl and salmon habitat from logging. That plan cut logging by more than 80 percent.

Conservation groups said they looked forward to returning to a more balanced approach to managing federal lands to protect fish and wildlife.

"The judge confirmed what everyone's been saying for years -- that BLM took an illegal shortcut to avoid scientific scrutiny of its plan," said Kristen Boyles, an attorney for Earthjustice who represented conservation groups.

Timber industry spokesman Tom Partin said they were disappointed with the outcome, because it meant fewer timber jobs and less money for rural counties that share in federal timber revenues.

"It was the best science BLM and all the regulatory agencies could come up with in the five years they were working on the western Oregon plan revisions," said Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council in Portland.

He said he believed the BLM's decision to make Endangered Species Act consultations over individual logging projects rather than the plan as a whole was valid, though the magistrate disagreed.

A timber industry lawsuit claiming the logging volumes set out in the plan were too low was still pending.

BLM did not immediately return calls for comment, but has said it would adopt a new approach that emphasizes restoring healthy forests less prone to wildfire.

The logging plan was the Bush administration's last-ditch attempt to make good on a promise to the timber industry to increase logging on Northwest national forests, where timber harvests had been cut more than 80 percent to protect habitat for salmon and the northern spotted owl.

Rural timber counties that depend on a share of federal logging revenues and mills starving for logs were counting on the plan to help overcome the cutbacks. But conservation groups opposed it, saying it would cut old growth forests that salmon and spotted owls depend on for habitat.

The Obama administration had pulled the plan in 2009, saying it was illegal because the Bush administration failed to have it reviewed for endangered species impacts. A judge later ruled that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar failed to properly consult the public before making the decision.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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