A federal judge has overturned the approval of a timber project that environmentalists claim is a “test case” for increased logging of mature forests.
The White Castle project calls for harvesting trees up to 110 years old on 187 acres of U.S. Bureau of Land Management property near Myrtle Creek, Ore.
The BLM intended for the project to demonstrate the “variable retention” model, in which patches of trees are harvested to recreate “early successional” habitat consisting of shrubs and other plant life.
While the agency argued the technique will improve the forest’s diversity and resilience, Oregon Wild and Cascadia Wildlands equated it with a return to clear-cutting federal forests and filed a lawsuit to stop the timber sale.
U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken has now agreed with the environmental groups that BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not conducting an in-depth scientific review of the project, known as an environmental impact statement or EIS.
“The project may be relatively small in size but it will adversely affect the northern spotted owl. Moreover, it represents a pilot test with effects that are likely to be highly controversial, highly uncertain and influential on future project planning,” Aiken said.
The judge has vacated BLM’s approval of the project, which means logging cannot proceed until the agency completes the EIS and corrects other shortcomings she identified.
In the agency’s existing environmental analysis, BLM failed to consider enough alternatives to removing trees older than 80 years old, Aiken said,
BLM should also have conducted a more extensive EIS because the project was subject to “scientific controversy” since its inception about possible effects on the spotted owl, a federally protected threatened species, she said.
Aside from the project’s uncertainties, Aiken also cited its precedential effect as a reason for further study.
While the BLM would not be required to follow the White Castle project’s example, the case was intended to test a more aggressive harvest approach that could replace the agency’s current risk-averse focus on thinning, she said.
“Approval of the White Castle project will not have binding impact on future projects, but it will, by design, shape BLM forestry methods and strategies moving forward,” Aiken said.