Judge halts hazard-tree removal

Timber company representatives and George Wilson (far right), chairman of the Juniper Group of the Oregon Chapter Sierra Club, conduct a Feb. 11 tour with Forest Service personnel to review proposed hazard-tree removal at the Flagtail Fire site north of Seneca. Wilson confirmed that he found no violations, information he shared with other environmental groups in an "internal report." Despite his findings, a district judge in Portland halted six of seven of the sales on procedural grounds. Contributed photo

PORTLAND - The Spray-based League of Wilderness Defenders-Blue Mountain Biodiversity Project won its case to stop a hazard-tree removal project in the Flagtail Fire area of the Malheur National Forest.

Judge Ancer Haggerty, after hearing arguments in U.S. District Court in Portland on Friday, Feb. 14, ruled that the Forest Service could proceed with only one of seven planned timber sales under a categorical exclusion.

Judge Haggerty had issued a temporary restraining order on Feb. 7 so he could hear the plaintiff's objection to the hazard-tree removal of 15,235 trees along roads in the fire area, which burned last summer.

The plaintiff, League of Wilderness Defenders-Blue Mountain Biodiversity Project, is an organization spearheaded by Asante Riverwind. The complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief against the Forest Service states that the organization wanted the court to grant an injunction "barring defendant, its contractors, permitees, or agents from taking any further actions to implement any logging within the Flagtail Fire project area until defendant has completed a legally adequate EIS or EA (environmental impact statement or environmental assessment)."

Bill McArthur, contracting officer for the Malheur National Forest, said the sales themselves were not scrutinized for shortcomings - an independent review of the sales by a representative of the Oregon Chapter Sierra Club found no violations - but the process under the National Environmental Policy Act was in question.

"The lawsuit basically contends that we violated the NEPA process. It basically says that they did not have opportunity to comment on a CE, which is a categorical exclusion, and they feel that a categorical exclusion is an inappropriate NEPA process," he said.

"We don't feel this is right for a categorical exclusion," Riverwind said.

"I don't want to see a precedent like this ever used. It's totally illegal," he added.

There are seven sales involved, and six of them have been awarded and partially completed - three apiece to Garry Allen Logging of John Day and D.R. Johnson Lumber Co., which operates Grant Western Lumber Co. in John Day and Prairie Wood Products and Co-Gen Co. in Prairie City.

The Associated Press reported that this was the fourth logging project Haggerty has stopped in eastern and central Oregon in the past year, all of them contested by League of Wilderness Defenders-Blue Mountain Biodiversity Project. Riverwind succeeded in halting a 4.8-million-board-feet salvage sale on the Ochoco National Forest, the Hash Rock Salvage Harvest, Jan. 29, 2002. This sale, evaluated under an environmental assessment, would have created or maintained 108 jobs, including those at Grant Western Lumber Co., according to the Forest Service.

The legal distinction being contested before Judge Haggerty on Friday was whether the Forest Service had the authority to plan and start the hazard-tree removal projects under a less-restrictive categorical exclusion rather than the often lengthy analysis process mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act. Commonly, timber companies refuse to bid on salvage timber following EA or EIS government analysis because the wood loses its value and degrades.

The lawsuit states that 1.7 million board feet of timber was targeted for salvage. However, the Forest Service asserted public safety as the reason for the action.

"This categorical exclusion was based upon hazard trees; it was not a timber sale," McArthur said.

"This is not an unprecedented way of doing business," he added.

The Bush administration supports the use of categorical exclusions; a pending administrative rule would allow small timber sales under the CE authority.

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