Environmentalists have mischaracterized the impacts of an Oregon timber project whose 9,000 acres are meant to improve harvest flexibility, according to the federal government.
Given its “precedential” uncertainties and risks, the North Landscape Project’s environmental analysis was inadequate, according to a lawsuit filed by the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, Oregon Wild, Cascadia Wildlands and the Soda Mountain Wilderness Council.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has countered that the project’s 9,000 acres are intended to act as a “pool” from which about 500 acres will be annually logged over a decade.
“The actual harvest each year will be much less than the plaintiffs are suggesting,” said Emma Hamilton, the BLM’s attorney, during oral arguments on April 14.
The project’s 9,000-acre pool will allow the agency to modify or shift individual timber sales to avoid injuring the protected Northern spotted owl, she said. “It doesn’t bind the BLM to any future action.”
At least 10% of the trees in each harvest unit will be retained, as will snags and large, old Douglas firs and pines, said Julie Weis, attorney for the Murphy Co., a timber company that has intervened in the case.
“This is a much more modest project than the plaintiffs would have the court believe,” Weis said, noting that only about 5,000 acres may actually be harvested.
The discovery of a spotted owl has already led to the reduction of one timber sale, she said.
The project will take place on forestland dedicated to harvest in BLM’s “resource management plan,” or RMP, for about 1.2 million acres in the region.
“This area was never intended to conserve the owl. The owl is being provided for in a different fashion,” Weis said, noting that BLM has reserved large blocks of forest for environmental purposes in the region.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has consulted on the project and issued a “biological opinion” concluding it won’t jeopardize the spotted owl, which will be monitored and protected from logging, said Robert Norway, the BLM’s attorney.
“The biological opinion fully analyzed the effects of the North Landscape Project,” he said. “The project is designed not to affect areas occupied by the Northern spotted owl.”
The environmental plaintiffs argued that BLM should have completed a more exhaustive “environmental impact statement” of the project, rather than an “environmental assessment” that hasn’t analyzed important factors.
“That kind of missing information could be gathered through the EIS process,” said Susan Jane Brown, attorney for the environmental groups.
The project will remove about 4,900 acres of the owl’s designated critical habitat, increasing competition from barred owls that pose an existential threat to the protected species, the plaintiffs claim.
The biological opinion improperly considered the effect of “late successional reserves” on the owl’s survival, even though their existence has no bearing on whether critical habitat is being destroyed, said Sangye Ince-Johannsen, attorney for the plaintiffs.
“These aren’t minor deficiencies but fatal flaws in the BiOp,” he said.
Spotted owls won’t be able to recolonize the logged areas for 120 years, which means 15 or more generations will go without suitable habitat, the plaintiffs argue.
“The BiOp failed to consider the life cycle of the Northern spotted owl,” Ince-Johannsen said.
The project authorizes a decade’s worth of logging but future timber sales won’t undergo any additional environmental analysis, said Brown.
“This is the definition of a precedent,” she said.