A timber harvest meant to showcase ecologically sound logging, already blocked by protesters in trees, was hauled into court Wednesday by two conservation groups.
Oregon Wild and Cascadia Wildlands sued the Bureau of Land Management in U.S. District Court of Oregon to stop the White Castle timber sale east of Myrtle Creek.
The conservation groups allege BLM didn’t take a “hard look” at the environmental consequences of harvesting 6.4 million board feet, enough to frame nearly 500 single-family homes.
The lawsuit also charges BLM with failing to protect nesting sites for the red tree vole, a mouse-sized rodent that is a candidate for the federal endangered species list.
The conservation groups are asking a federal judge to put the harvest on hold until its claims have been settled.
A BLM spokesman declined to comment on the lawsuit.
The consequences of the lawsuit could reach beyond a single timber sale. U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has based his proposal to double timber production on BLM land in Western Oregon on the success of timber harvests such as White Castle.
Oregon Wild opposes Wyden’s plan, but the group’s executive director, Sean Stevens, said White Castle likely would have provoked a lawsuit anyway because of the century-old trees targeted for logging.
“It’s just in the wrong spot,” he said. “This is one that stands out like a sore thumb.”
Stevens acknowledged the suit’s broader implications for BLM’s management of Oregon & California Railroad trust lands.
“We do think the outcome of this case has some bearing on the legitimacy of Sen. Wyden’s plan,” he said.
Timber production on 2.6 million acres of O&C lands - more than one-quarter of which are in Douglas County - has fallen by 84 percent since the spotted owl was listed as a threatened species in 1990. The Department of Interior in 2010 announced pilot projects, including White Castle, to try to increase timber production without provoking environmental opposition.
The principles to be tested - which BLM calls “variable retention harvest” but Stevens mocks as a “kinder, gentler clear-cut” - were advanced by forestry professors Norm Johnson and Jerry Franklin.
Wyden called Johnson and Franklin “superstars” when he rolled out his O&C bill in November.
“Sen. Wyden stands by his O&C bill and the scientific approach it takes,” the senator’s spokesman, Tom Towslee, said Wednesday.
The timber industry gives the Johnson-Franklin approach low marks for its emphasis on leaving behind stands of trees and letting the land regrow naturally rather than replanting. Still, timber companies have bid on two pilot projects.
Douglas Timber Operators Executive Director Bob Ragon said the lawsuit demonstrates that litigation against timber sales won’t stop as long as O&C lands are managed under federal rules.
“Wyden’s O&C bill is based on the premise that with the Norm and Jerry approach you can manage forests and protect the environment. Obviously, that’s not sitting well with the enviros,” he said. “This illustrates (Wyden’s) solution to the O&C problem isn’t going to work.”
The U.S. House has approved a bill sponsored by Oregon Reps. Peter DeFazio, Greg Walden and Kurt Schrader to manage O&C timberlands under less-restrictive state laws.
“The only way to end the litigation is the solution DeFazio-Walden-Schrader arrived at and that is to take these lands from under the federal laws that are being used tangle them up,” Ragon said.
While the timber industry generally supports the House bill, conservation groups view it as worse than Wyden’s proposal. Wyden, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has dismissed the House legislation as dead on arrival in the Senate.
Stevens said Oregon Wild waited to see the results of another Johnson-Franklin pilot harvest, the 59-acre Buck Rising, also in the Myrtle Creek watershed, before suing to stop White Castle.
The group concluded Buck Rising represents a return to damaging practices that Wyden’s bill “proposes to enshrine across the landscape,” Stevens said.
“It’s interesting that we’re returning to clear-cutting and talking about that as a compromise,” he said.
The BLM sold White Castle to Scott Timber Co., a subsidiary of Roseburg Forest Products, on Sept. 11, 2012. The company bid $1.335 million.
Logging has been stopped by anti-logging activists who have strategically positioned themselves in trees in the path of a road that will have to be built to reach the timber.
BLM says legal and logistical issues have prevented them arresting the protestors. Instead, the BLM has proposed closing the area to the public, including the activists. Cascadia Forest Defenders has appealed the closure to a federal board, which has yet to rule.
According to BLM documents, surveyors planning the White Castle sale found 88 trees that showed signs of red tree vole nests. The BLM designed the timber harvest to leave 59 of those trees.
BLM also designed the harvest to leave 41 percent of the tree stands in the 187 acres to be logged.
Lawsuit shows Oregon Wild and Cascadia Wildlands are “totally uncooperative and litigate everything they can,” Scott Timber’s vice president for resources, Scott Folk, told The Associated Press.
“This is disappointing because the sale is designed as a pilot project to try some new forest-management ideas developed by (Johnson and Franklin),” he said.
- City Editor Don Jenkins can be reached at 541-957-4201 or firstname.lastname@example.org.