SAN FRANCISCO — In a blow to the logging industry, a federal appeals panel blocked the harvest of thousands of acres of old-growth forest in southwestern Oregon, ruling Thursday the federal government did not adequately address the plight of protected salmon.
The sweeping decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also may halt the proposed logging of hundreds of thousands of acres throughout California, Oregon and Washington state – all idled pending the panel’s ruling.
“This is a victory for salmon,” said Patti Goldman, of the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, which sued the government on behalf of a host of environmental and fishing groups.
In the Oregon case, the three-judge appellate panel said the National Marine Fisheries Service failed to adequately consider the harm logging would have on endangered salmon runs on 20 of 23 Umpqua National Forest and Bureau of Land Management parcels in the Umpqua River Basin around Roseburg, Ore.
The basin, comprising those lands draining into the Umpqua River, is home to Umpqua cutthroat trout and threatened runs of Oregon Coast coho salmon that are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The suit contended endangered Oregon salmon runs, which have been dwindling and have forced thousands of fisherman out of work, would be harmed by proposed logging from Douglas Timber Operators, a consortium of logging companies.
While fishing concerns heralded the ruling, logging interests said Thursday’s decision may doom harvesting federal lands throughout the West.
Mark Rutzick, Douglas Timber Operators’ attorney in Portland, said the court’s ruling may have created standards “that are impossible to meet.” The timber companies, he said, may ask the appeals panel to reconsider its decision or ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.
Even so, the federal government said it intends to have the acreage in question logged, but first must figure out how to satisfy the courts.
“We can’t move ahead with these timber sales yet,” said Rex Holloway, a National Forest Service spokesman in Seattle.
Bob Dick, of the American Forest Resource Council in Olympia, Wash., which represents a variety of logging companies in the West, said the “environmental community will be satisfied with nothing less than zero harvesting.”
He noted that 40 percent of the nation’s wood supplies are imported from countries with minimal or no environmental standards.
“Some people think we are cutting down trees for the perverse act of cutting down trees,” he said. “We’re not meeting demand in this country.”
Douglas Timber Operators’ case stems from 1999, when U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein of Seattle ordered the timber sales halted until the government could show that fish would not be harmed and the sales complied with the Clinton administration’s 1994 Northwest Forest Plan and the Endangered Species Act.
The Oregon case has wide-ranging implications for hundreds of thousands of acres the federal government has slated for logging in California, Washington state and other parts of Oregon.
The same federal judge who blocked the Umpqua River Basin logging also blocked logging on 170 parcels the government designated throughout the West. Judge Rothstein stopped logging in those states in December on the same grounds as she did for the Umpqua River Basin sites around Roseburg.
Under federal law, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management were required to get a “biological opinion” from the fisheries service before proceeding with any logging plans in the Umpqua River basin, where fish runs have dipped into single digits in some years.
The appeals court, in agreeing with Rothstein, said the opinions did not address short-term effects on salmon, which run from the ocean to rivers to spawn, and the cumulative effects of all the proposed logging combined.
The panel said the government’s studies did not meet guidelines set out in Clinton’s forest plan. That plan, in response to the federal listing of the northern spotted owl, is aimed at balancing the demand for timber from public lands with the need to protect habitat for dwindling populations of fish and wildlife.
The plan covered 24.5 million acres of federal forest lands throughout the range of the spotted owl and reduced logging in Northwest forests by about 80 percent from levels of the 1980s.
The fisheries service issued biological opinions that logging in Oregon’s Umpqua River Basin, which resides within the northern spotted owl’s range, was not likely to jeopardize the cutthroat trout and the Oregon Coast coho salmon.
The appeals panel found that the government provided no scientific evidence to support its conclusion that new growth in logged areas would adequately offset the degradation caused by the logging projects to ensure the continued existence of the fish in question.
The court said that the government failed to consider short-term impacts and instead relied on the premise that the area would be restored in a decade. The government’s studies said the logging ultimately would not affect anadromous fish, which migrate from the ocean to rivers to spawn.
“This generous time frame ignores the life cycle and migration cycle of anadromous fish,” the court said. “In 10 years, a badly degraded habitat will likely result in the total extinction of the subspecies that formerly returned to a particular creek for spawning.”
Glen Spain, Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association Inc., a plaintiff in the suit, said the decision could help restore salmon stocks and eventually bring work to thousands who have lost their jobs.
“They were just assuming the fish would survive. You can’t do that,” Spain said.
Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle, said he had just received the ruling and could not comment extensively.
“Obviously, we will do what the court tells us to do,” Gorman said. “It did seem to think we should have taken short-term effects on salmon habitat into greater consideration.”
The case is Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association Inc. v. National Marine Fisheries Service, 99-36027.