Judge stops federal timber project

A Sacramento federal judge on Friday blocked a U.S. Forest Service timber sale and thinning project, finding that the agency was wrong in not preparing an environmental impact statement and in not considering alternative acreage for the project. 

"In this case, if the (Forest Service) were allowed to go forward without preparing an EIS, irreparable damage would be done," U.S. District Judge William B. Shubb ruled.

Shubb noted that part of the proposed acreage is designated as critical habitat for the northern spotted owl, and harvesting timber at that location "raises substantial questions about the project's environmental effects."

"The Forest Service may not unilaterally change a critical habitat designation to meet its needs on a given project," Shubb wrote in a 28-page order.

Forest Service spokesman Matt Mathes pointed out that some of the agency's actions in connection with the project were found by Shubb to be satisfactory.

"We are happy about that," Mathes said. "We also appreciate Judge Shubb flagging the deficiencies in the project, and we will take what he said into full consideration as we decide what to do next."

Shubb also wrote that the project's effect on other sensitive species is uncertain, finding the Forest Service did cursory analyses of effects on the northern goshawk, the Pacific fisher, the California wolverine, the American marten and the pallid bat.

The agency failed to conduct surveys on these species "despite specific instruction to do so in the Forest Management Plan Standards & Guidelines," the judge wrote.

Three acres near the Scott River, which is part of the National Wild and Scenic River System, are designated as recreational, he noted.

The Forest Service looked at two alternatives, one being to do nothing. That clearly did not meet the stated goal of the project, which was "to manage the landscape toward a condition that will be resilient to catastrophic fire," Shubb wrote.

Since the acreage chosen for the project was the only other alternative considered, its selection was "preordained," he wrote.

The 1,026 acres at issue are 30 miles southwest of Yreka off Interstate 5 in the Klamath National Forest.

"There was an obvious, viable alternative that the FS did not consider," Shubb wrote. That, he wrote, was to exclude critical habitat and recreational river land from consideration.

He permanently enjoined the agency from proceeding with the project "until such time as the Forest Service satisfies its ... obligations" under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Mathes said 6.5 million board feet of lumber would have been harvested, but he declined to estimate how much the agency would have netted.

"It was part of the Northwest Forest Plan, approved by President Clinton and designed to protect large parts of the ecosystem in Northern California, while providing some timber sales for the small towns in the region, where the economy is in terrible trouble," Mathes said.

"Most of the trees scheduled to be cut are small, but the sale could make a significant difference to some of the local sawmills."

The fuels produced by the thinning would have been treated in a variety of ways, mostly by controlled burning, to reduce the possibility of later fires, he added.