EUGENE — A federal judge has issued a temporary restraining order against salvage logging in two areas within Oregon’s Willamette National Forest affected by wildfires last year.
The two forest projects had been approved for tree thinning by the U.S. Forest Service before wildfires tore through the national forest in September 2020.
The Cascadia Wildlands and Oregon Wild environmental nonprofits claim the agency has unlawfully changed the projects to allow salvage logging without analyzing its effects under the National Environmental Policy Act.
“Salvage has substantially different impacts to the forest than thinning,” Meriel Darzen, attorney for the plaintiffs, said during oral arguments Dec. 3.
The environmental organizations didn’t initially oppose the Lang Dam Project, which involves 630 acres of commercial harvest, or the Highway 46 Project, under which nearly 2,000 would be logged.
However, the plaintiffs filed a lawsuit alleging the Forest Service had revised the projects “behind closed doors” to allow for salvage logging, which wasn’t considered in the original NEPA analysis.
“That’s problematic because it undermines the trust,” Darzen said.
While the Forest Service has discounted the significance of the changes, there’s a big difference between thinning living trees and removing substantially all the trees from a burned area, she said.
“I’m not sure how much less minor you can get,” Darzen said.
Not only has the nature of the projects changed, but the environmental circumstances within their boundaries have as well — affecting spotted owl habitat, stream flows and noxious weeds, she said.
“Even on the areas that are not burned, you’re dealing with different baseline conditions,” Darzen said.
Emma Hamilton, attorney for the federal government, said the project changes don’t cause “irreparable harm” and don’t justify the “extraordinary relief” of an injunction.
An injunction would most immediately affect about 345 acres slated for logging under the Highway 46 project, which are needed to meet the Forest Service’s contractual obligations, she said.
“They need to be harvested right away because dead and dying trees deteriorate,” Hamilton said.
The agency has scaled back the acreage approved for commercial logging under the revised plans, specifically dropping harvest units within riparian areas, she said.
Even with the changes, the Forest Service is adhering to the original goals of the projects, Hamilton said.
“Plaintiffs are not looking at the scale of these minor variations,” she said. “This isn’t a wholesale change. It certainly isn’t a bait and switch.”
At the conclusion of oral arguments, U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken in Eugene said she was disappointed the Forest Service didn’t behave with more transparency in revising the projects.
The wildfires changed the conditions within the project boundaries in ways that couldn’t have been foreseen when their environmental impacts were examined under NEPA, Aiken said.
Though the judge agreed to issue a temporary restraining order halting the projects, she urged the parties to consult with a federal magistrate judge on a potential settlement.
The parties should try to resolve the issue without litigation, Aiken said. “It behooves all of you to get to the table right now.”