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Controversial Old Growth Environmental Impact Statement Would Allow Stalled Timber Projects to Proceed

August 9, 2006

The United States Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (the Agencies) have issued a draft supplemental environmental impact statement (the 2006 EIS), potentially allowing over 140 timber projects that have been enjoined since January, 2006 to proceed. The 2006 EIS sets out measures the Agencies are taking to manage old-growth habitat in Washington, Oregon, and California under the Northwest Forest Plan. It responds to deficiencies identified by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington and supports the Agencies’ controversial decision to eliminate the Northwest Forest Plan’s “Survey and Manage Standards,” which require the Agencies to monitor certain species that inhabit old-growth forest. See Federal Court Halts Pacific Northwest Logging.

 In 1994, the Agencies adopted the Northwest Forest Plan in response to a spate of litigation involving old-growth forest in the Pacific Northwest. The Northwest Forest Plan covers over twenty-four million acres of forestlands in Washington, Oregon, and California, and attempts to harmonize two sometimes conflicting goals: protecting the long-term health of the forest ecosystem, and providing a predictable, sustainable supply of timber and forest products. At the time it was adopted, the Northwest Forest Plan was the largest ecosystem management plan developed in the United States. At that time, the Survey and Manage Standards were made a central component of the Northwest Forest Plan, and apply to 296 rare, but not threatened or endangered, species. They required the Agencies to: (1) manage known sites of certain species; (2) conduct surveys prior to ground-disturbing activities; (3) conduct extensive surveys to locate high-priority sites for hard-to-find species; and (4) conduct general regional surveys to gain information about poorly known species.

In 2004, the Agencies analyzed the alternatives set forth in an EIS (the 2004 EIS) and issued a Record of Decision (the 2004 ROD) which removed the Survey and Manage Standards. The Agencies based their decision on three factors. First, the Agencies concluded that other, more flexible provisions of the Plan, including the Agencies’ Special Status Species programs, would “provide for diversity of plant and animal communities and conserve species that may be at risk of becoming listed under the [ESA].” Id. at 9-10. Second, the Agencies concluded that eliminating the highly centralized, mandatory Survey and Manage Standards would reduce the Agencies’ annual short-term costs by $15.9 million. Id. at 12. Finally, the Agencies concluded that removing the Survey and Manage Standards would restore “the Agencies’ ability to achieve Northwest Forest Plan resource management goals” by increasing annual acres available for hazardous fuel treatments by 9,000 acres. Id. at 12-13.

Last year, a coalition of opponents to the Agencies’ action successfully challenged the Agencies’ decision to remove the Manage and Survey Standards. In August 2005, District Court Judge Marsha Pechman ruled that the 2004 EIS failed to comply with NEPA on three grounds. Northwest Forest Ecosystem Alliance v. Rey, 380 F. Supp.2d 1175 (W.D. Wash. 2005). First, the court ruled that the Agencies failed to analyze potential impacts to Survey and Manage species if they are not added to, or are removed from the Agencies’ respective Special Status Species programs. Second, the court ruled that the Agencies did not thoroughly analyze whether late-successional forest reserves would adequately protect Survey and Manage species. Finally, the court ruled that the Agencies failed to adequately disclose or analyze their methodology for calculating the acreage in need of hazardous fuel treatements. Id. at 1181.

Judge Pechman subsequently granted the plaintiffs’ motion for injunctive relief in part. Northwest Ecosystem Alliance v. Rey, 2006 WL 44361 (W.D. Wash. 2006). The Court set aside the 2004 ROD, reinstated the 2001 Survey and Manage Standards, and enjoined the Agencies from authorizing or permitting “any logging or other ground-disturbing activities on projects to which the [Survey and Manage Standards] applied unless such activities are in compliance with the provisions of the 2001 ROD.” Id. at *1. Judge Pechman’s injunction impacted over 140 timber projects in the Northwest already approved by the Agencies.

On June 29, 2006, the Agencies issued the 2006 draft EIS in which they attempt to address the issues raised by Judge Pechman’s rulings. The 2006 EIS “provides new information and analyses for 295 species, the status of Northwest Forest Plan Reserves, revised wildland and prescribed fire analysis, as well as a discussion of the likely role of Survey and Manage species on ecosystem functioning.” The Agencies will accept public comment on the 2006 EIS through October 5, 2006. If, after public comment, the Agencies adopt the 2006 EIS as proposed, the next step will be for the United States to request that Judge Pechman lift the injunction before they can resume logging.

Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, now Conservation Northwest, the plaintiff in the litigation challenging the Agencies’ original EIS remains opposed to removal of the “Survey and Manage Standards.” An article entitled “Bush goes after old-growth (again)” posted on the group’s website quotes Doug Heiken of Oregon Natural Resources Defense Council describing the decision to eliminate the standards as “an example of the Bush administration trying to rewrite reality to meet their expectations.” See http://www.conservationnw.org/oldgrowth/bush-goes-after-old-growth-again.

The Agencies believe that the revised EIS addresses all of the deficiencies identified by the federal court. See Agencies Press Release, June 29, 2006 at http://www.reo.gov/s-m2006/2006/S&M_PressRelease_6.29.06.pdf.

One of the intervenors on the Agencies side in the litigation, American Forest Resources Council agrees. The group describes the Survey and Manage Standards as being “used extensively by environmental groups to slow down or stop the much-needed work such as those projects designed to improve forest health.” An article posted on the group’s website indicates that the Agencies’ draft EIS has addressed the “technicalities” found by Judge Pechman. http://www.afrc.ws/.

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