A federal judge has ruled that much of the expansion of Oregon's Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in 2017 was illegal.
Timber counties in western Oregon and the timber industry challenged the expansion, as well as current Bureau of Land Management policy that reduces the amount of the state’s Oregon and California Railroad Lands (O&C Lands) available for commercial timber production. They argued that those public lands were set aside by Congress explicitly for logging, with a portion of the proceeds going directly to the counties.
The District of Columbia District Court judge agreed with both challenges.
“This question – Does the O&C Act mean what it says? – has been pending for about 25 years. So this decision was a huge step in resolving that question,” said Travis Joseph, president of the American Forest Resource Council, a plaintiff in both cases.
At the end of his term, President Barack Obama issued an executive order expanding monument status – and protections – in the mountains east of Ashland by 48,000 acres. Designated O&C Lands comprised more than 80% of the added land.
“The judge found that a president cannot use, in this case the Antiquities Act, to unilaterally override federal law and congressional intent,” Joseph said.
The judge found the presidential proclamation expanding Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument is “invalid and unenforceable” for the O&C Lands.
But what is meant by the language of the law setting aside the O&C Lands is still very much a topic of legal debate. An Oregon district judge ruled the exact opposite in a nearly identical case earlier this year.
“The O&C Act doesn’t require cutting every stick on every acre. And President Obama’s expansion of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument on O&C Lands was perfectly legal,” said Dave Willis, president of the Soda Mountain Wilderness Council of the previous decision.
That earlier decision has been appealed by the timber company that filed it. And Willis says his organization, as an intervener in the case, plans to appeal this latest district court decision.
The second challenge dealt more directly with the approximately 2 million acres of O&C Lands in Oregon overseen by the BLM. In 2016, the BLM approved a forest management plan that placed about three-fourths of the O&C Land base into old growth and riparian reserves. The judge ruled this also violated the O&C Act, and that the parties must move to remedy the violation.
The timber industry and environmental groups both say they are anticipating, but have not confirmed, that the BLM will challenge both decisions.
"BLM has argued forcefully against these positions," said Earthjustice attorney Kristen Boyles.
As an attorney for the the Soda Mountain Wilderness Council, Boyles observed the BLM's arguments during the case.
"They [argued] they need the discretion to manage these lands in ways that are ecologically sound and comply with other laws, like the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act," she said.
What will happen to the Cascade-Siskiyou monument and broader O&C Lands in the intervening time is unclear. A request for comment from the BLM was not returned.
Timber industry representative Joseph doesn’t think the issue will be resolved soon.
“What makes the O&C Act unique is it’s so specific and there’s no law like it," he said. "This could eventually find its way up to the Supreme Court to finally resolve this issue once and for all.”