- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 22, 2014

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) - Conservation groups are challenging a timber sale that demonstrates the kind of ecosystem-driven logging that would be fast-tracked under Sen. Ron Wyden’s bill to increase harvests from federally owned property in western Oregon.

Oregon Wild and Cascadia Wildlands filed the lawsuit Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Eugene.

Tree-sitters have been occupying the White Castle timber sale in the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Roseburg District since last summer.

The lawsuit alleges the federal agency failed to follow environmental laws requiring a hard look at the potential environmental impacts of the sale, including clear-cutting trees up to 150 years old, destruction of northern spotted owl habitat, and felling trees containing nests of red tree voles, a key food for spotted owls.

“Essentially, they are saying they can clear-cut 438 acres without doing an environmental-impact statement,” said Steve Pedery, conservation director of Oregon Wild. “They are saying they are experimenting. The perspective we have is they are clearly responding to pressures from politicians and county government, and that they want to get back to the business of clear-cutting to supplement county budgets.”

Bureau of Land Management spokesman Cheyne Rossbach said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

The property, known as O&C; lands, is a patchwork of timber formerly owned by the Oregon & California Railroad that reverted to the government early in the 20th century and is managed by the federal agency.

Wyden, D-Ore., has offered a bill to fast-track logging on the O&C; lands following the principles of Oregon State University forestry professors Norm Johnson and Jerry Franklin to increase jobs and revenues for timber counties. Wyden spokesman Keith Chu said the senator had no comment on the lawsuit, but he stood behind the ecological-forestry principles in his bill.

The sale was designed in a stand of trees that grew back naturally after a fire 110 years ago, Rossbach said. It will demonstrate whether it is possible to create a broader diversity of habitats though logging in a way that is economically viable. The harvest areas mimic the effects of wildfire, with broad areas harvested while small patches of older trees remain. It was also designed to promote young stands and open areas that are at a premium in public forests, while retaining essential elements of old growth.

Tree-sitters have erected four platforms in trees that must be cut to build a road for logging equipment near the top of the biggest unit for sale, Rossbach said. The Bureau of Land Management has proposed closing the area to the public, a first step to removing the tree-sitters, but the closure proposal is under appeal.

The sale is the second pilot project ordered by the Secretary of Interior at the urging of members of Oregon’s Congressional delegation to demonstrate ecological logging principles promoted by Johnson and Franklin. They were among the architects of the Northwest Forest Plan, which cut logging by 90 percent in the 1990s on national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands in Washington, Oregon and northern California to protect threatened species like the spotted owl and salmon.

Since the logging cutbacks were instituted in the 1990s, timber counties have struggled to replace the lost timber jobs and lost federal timber revenues. Counties in western Oregon have cut essential services, like jails and sheriff’s patrols, as revenues dwindled. Voters have not wanted to raise their taxes to make up the difference.

The timber was sold to Scott Timber Co., a subsidiary of Roseburg Forest Products, for $1.3 million. The 6.4 million board feet to be harvested is considered enough to build about 215 houses and support about 70 timber jobs. Scott Folk, vice president for resources for the companies, said they would not start logging until it was safe to do so.

“This is disappointing because the sale is designed as a pilot project to try some new forest-management ideas developed by (Johnson and Franklin),” Folk said.

“It’s an attempt to find a solution” to the difficulties producing timber from federal lands, he said. “The disappointing part here is the people at Oregon Wild and Cascadia Wildlands continue to be totally uncooperative and litigate everything they can.”