Appeals court: BLM must look at cumulative impact
PORTLAND — The U.S. Bureau of Land Management was ordered Thursday to reassess the environmental effects of four timber sales in Southern Oregon based on their cumulative impact, instead of their individual impact, possibly affecting the way the agency reviews sales across the West.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a ruling by U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan in Eugene after the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildland Center went to court to force the BLM to reconsider its environmental assessment of the four proposed sales in the Little Butte Creek watershed near Mount McLoughlin, in the Cascade Range just east of Medford.
"We're not surprised he'd be overturned in this case,'' said George Sexton, the center's conservation director. "Hogan is the most extreme judge in the 9th Circuit.''
BLM officials in Medford and Washington, D.C., said they could not comment on the ruling until they had a chance to review it.
Brenna Bell, a Portland attorney for the center, said the ruling may have broad policy implications for the BLM and the Bush administration's Healthy Forest Initiative.
"The 9th Circuit decision really drove home the fact that the BLM needs objective data to support their conclusions on environmental impact, not just glossy assurances that timber sales will have little effect,'' Bell said.
"That's why it will have greater impact than just this set of timber sales, because it obligates the government to provide the public with real information,'' she said.
The three-judge panel, in a 27-page opinion by Judge Richard R. Clifton, said the environmental assessments on the four proposed timber sales "do not reflect a hard look at the effects from proceeding with all of the anticipated projects and do not provide sufficient information to permit meaningful public scrutiny.''
Sexton said the BLM district office in Medford has been targeting old-growth trees in order to expand efforts to increase logging by thinning smaller and younger trees as a way to reduce wildfire risk.
"That sets up a self-reinforcing cycle,'' Sexton said.
"They go in and take out the old-growth trees. Then they say we've taken out all the old-growth trees, so now we have to thin the forest to protect communities from wildfire.''
The appeals court, however, ruled the BLM must provide detailed data to support the policy.
"The BLM cannot simply offer conclusions,' Clifton wrote."Rather it must identify and discuss the impacts that will be caused by each successive timber sale, including how the combination of those various impacts is expected to affect the environment, so as to provide a reasonably thorough assessment of the projects cumulative impacts.''