Timber group suing Interior for more trees

To force the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to increase its timber harvest in Western Oregon, the timber industry, including Rough and Ready Lumber Co. in the Illinois Valley and the Swanson Group Manufacturing in Glendale, filed a lawsuit in federal court Monday.

The suit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., against Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar seeks to require the BLM to sell at least 502 million board feet each year, the amount provided for under the resource management plans for the agency's districts in Western Oregon.

The agency has sold only a small fraction of the annual timber harvest mandated by the plans approved in 2008, according to the lawsuit. For instance, the Medford District's fiscal year 2011 planned target calls for harvesting 19 million board feet out of the 97 million board feet called for in its management plan, the plaintiffs said.

Others joining in the lawsuit are the Portland-based American Forest Resource Council, Carpenters Industrial Council, Douglas Timber Operators Inc., C&D Lumber Co. of Riddle, Feres Lumber Co. Inc. of Lyons, Seneca Jones Timber Co. of Eugene and Starfire Lumber Co. Inc. of Cottage Grove.

"At a time when our mills need this timber to survive, it is outrageous that the Obama administration is directing the BLM not to sustainably harvest," said AFRC president Tom Partin in a prepared statement.

"Instead, these forests are being allowed to become overcrowded and prone to devastating forest fires that will destroy wildlife habitat and threaten water supplies," he added. "The situation our mills find themselves in is like starving to death in a refrigerator full of food."

Although the BLM declined to discuss the lawsuit, Medford District spokesman Jim Whittington confirmed that the baseline timber harvest for the 2011 fiscal year is 19 million board feet, but added that other projects in which timber harvest is a byproduct would push it to about 21 million for the year.

But Joseph Vaile, campaign director for the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center in Ashland, said the lawsuit was a distraction from efforts by communities, environmental groups and timber representatives working together to find a middle ground to forestry issues that provided jobs while protecting ecosystems.

"It is disappointing that some timber industry leaders want to log our old forests and streamside areas that provide the cleanest drinking water, salmon habitat and countless recreation opportunities," he said. "These industry lawsuits threaten Forest Service and BLM direction to provide jobs and timber volume as a byproduct of restoration thinning. This is really an effort to take us back to clearcutting old-growth forests on public land."

At issue is the timber growing on the 2.1 million acres of Oregon & California Railroad Co. lands west of the Cascade range. By law, half of the money raised from the sale of O&C timber goes to the 18 counties in Western Oregon. Those funds, as well as tax revenues generated by local businesses, are essential to rural government survival as payments under the federal Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act continues to diminish, the plaintiffs said.

The amount the BLM is required to sell annually - 502 million - is only half of what the O&C forests can sustainably produce, noted AFRC vice president Ann Forest Burns. The plaintiffs would like to see that harvest increased to what can be sustainably cut, she said.

Noting the industry was successful in its lawsuit to force the Interior Department to take another look at its Western Oregon Plan Revisions, a Bush administration plan to increase logging on BLM forests in the region, Burns said the plaintiffs are optimistic they will be successful in this case. The department has not yet decided what it will do about that case after a judge ruled earlier this year that more public participation was needed before the WOPR could be dropped.

"Suing the government is always an uphill battle, but we are being forced to do so by the Interior Department's blatant apathy towards the law and the plight of rural Oregon counties," Partin said. "Local BLM employees spent nearly five years and millions of dollars to put these plans together. They need to be instructed to move forward to implement them until the agency is brought into compliance with the statutory requirement for sustained timber production."