Federal District Court Brings Northwest Timber Sales to a Standstill

Published December 1, 1999

Federal District Court Judge William Dwyer in Seattle granted a temporary injunction against 25 timber sales, after having previously halted nine projects involving 22 sales in early August. The judge’s decisions affect the sale of approximately 227 million board feet of lumber.

The judge determined that no “ground-disturbing activity” can be started on the forest tracts affected by his injunction until after species surveys are completed. His decision pertains not only to logging, but also to Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) plans to repair hiking trails or other infrastructure.

Dwyer based his decision on provisions in the Forest Service’s Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP) of 1994, which he determined requires surveys to be completed by the Forest Service on 77 species of plants and animals before logging begins.

Rex Holloway, a Forest Service spokesman in Portland, told Environment News the judge misinterpreted the NWFP provision. It was “never an intent of the Forest Service,” he said, “to do surveys on all 77 species before any logging contracts were given.” The Forest Service acknowledged that its final set of surveys, due August 1998, would be delayed a year. The Service’s own Environmental Impact Assessment had determined “there would be no long-term detriment to any species,” said Holloway, if the timber sales were allowed to proceed.

Holloway told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “There’s an abundance of species we didn’t know a whole lot about. Some live in the air, some live in the ground. People didn’t realize the challenge in identifying them. Some of them we can count only at certain times of the year, and some not even every year.”

All but 13 surveys were completed, according to Holloway, but the remaining ones “aren’t feasible to do.” The Forest Service proposed to Dwyer that it be permitted to do a supplemental environmental assessment on a project-by-project basis for the final 13 species, but Dwyer rejected the request.

In drawing up the Northwest Forest Plan, which was approved in 1994 by Dwyer, Holloway said the scientists had intended that an investigator could simply go into the forest and identify each species in the field. That, however, is not possible for many of the species to be surveyed. For example, Holloway noted, “one snail needs to be put into four different solutions and cut open to identify it.” Such complexities mean the surveys will require considerably more time to complete than first thought.

Dwyer was not sympathetic to the Forest Service’s position. He has required that surveys for all 77 species must be completed before the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Forest Service can award timber sales. While many of the timber sale contracts on the tracts in question timber had been finalized in 1998, logging had not begun at the time of Dwyer’s ruling. The projects are now stalled under the temporary injunction.

The Oregon Natural Resources Council (ONRC) was one of 14 environmental groups to bring the suit against the government. Doug Heiken of ONRC told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that Dwyer’s decision “made a very strong statement that the government has once again stepped over the line and put timber harvest ahead of other public values, including clean water, wildlife, and ancient forests.”

Chris West of the Northwest Forestry Association (NFA) took a less positive view of the judge’s decision. “To make the timber supply situation worse, last week the Forest Service announced that it would not award any previously sold timber sales and that no new sales would be offered until the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement is completed and the survey and management requirements of the Northwest Forest Plan are amended. The total impact of this decision, which includes the BLM, is another 400 million board feet of unawarded sales, plus all future sales.”

Pacific Northwest timber sales have fallen 78 percent from their highs in the 1980s, according to the NFA. The Forest Service confirmed that estimate.

Falling timber sales have meant growing unemployment and less revenue to support schools and social services in forest communities. The NFA says the Northwest Forest Plan makes only 12 percent of the region’s federally owned forest land (less than 3 million acres) available for “regulated timber harvesting.” The other 88 percent–21 million acres of old-growth forest–is preserved and protected from logging.

According to the NFA, the Clinton-Gore administration did not take into account the job losses that would result from timber sale cutbacks. Already some 84,000 jobs are estimated to have been lost following implementation of the NWFP. Moreover, the NFA says the administration “has never provided adequate funding or administrative support to meet the drastically reduced timber harvest levels called for in the Plan. The Forest Service is hundreds of millions of board feet behind their ten-year sale projections.”

The species survey and management plans required by the NWFP are more onerous than those required under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), said a congressional source. While the ESA recognizes that a modification of habitat may result in some danger to an animal species, an “incidental take permit” nevertheless would allow this modification to occur. Under the NWFP, the Forest Service surveys must flag the area where a species is found, buffer it, and avoid it entirely. The Forest Service must then try to count the species and develop a protocol on how to inventory and manage it, rather than simply developing a plan for the overall habitat. This, the source said, makes NWFP plans more onerous than dealing with spotted owl habitat under the ESA.

Dwyer is scheduled to rule on a permanent injunction in October, but he has asked the three parties–the BLM and Forest Service, the plaintiff environmental groups, and the timber companies/associations–to arrive at a mutually acceptable solution before then. Jim Geisinger of the NWFA told Environment News that his group has not yet been included in any attempt to reach a compromise. He said he “doubts” the anti-timber groups would agree to any concessions.