Court: BLM acted illegally to allow logging

GRANTS PASS, Ore. — A federal appeals court blocked two old-growth timber sales in southwestern Oregon on Monday after finding the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) illegally downgraded protections for the red tree vole to make them possible.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco found that the BLM failed to conduct a public review before changing the classification of the red tree vole, a small rodent that lives in the treetops of old-growth forests, under the "survey and manage" provisions of the Northwest Forest Plan.

"If BLM can modify the protection afforded a species under a resource management plan as dramatically as it has here ... BLM could ultimately remove all the Survey and Manage designations without ever conducting another (environmental assessment) or (environmental impact statement), and without providing public disclosure," Judge Dorothy Nelson wrote.

The Northwest Forest Plan cut timber harvests on federal lands west of the Cascade Range in Oregon, Washington and Northern California by more than 80 percent to protect habitat for the threatened northern spotted owl, salmon and hundreds of other species. BLM has been much more aggressive than the U.S. Forest Service in trying to reach the timber-harvest goals, which have never been met.

BLM Oregon spokeswoman Jody Weil said the agency had not evaluated the ruling yet but intended to comply with it in a way that would keep its commitment to offer timber for sale.

The "survey and manage" provisions require BLM and the Forest Service to look for hundreds of species before cutting old-growth forests and protect enough habitat to maintain the species. At the behest of the timber industry, the Bush administration eased the provisions in 2004, but they were reinstated by a federal judge this year.

"By issuing internal memos that open up potentially thousands of acres of old growth forests to logging, the Bush administration has been playing fast and loose with public involvement," said Joseph Vaile, campaign manager for the lead plaintiff, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center in Ashland.

The U.S. Forest Service and BLM are rewriting the rules for "survey and manage." The supplemental environmental impact statement is expected next March.

"While [the ruling] is significant in the short term, it may be moot in the long term, depending on what they do," said Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, which represents the timber industry.