- The Washington Times - Friday, July 17, 2009

DENVER | Interior Secretary Ken Salazar dealt a blow to cash-strapped rural Oregon communities Thursday by withdrawing a George W. Bush administration plan that would have allowed more logging on millions of acres of federal forest land.

Mr. Salazar said the Bush plan, known as the Western Oregon Plan Revisions, was “legally indefensible” and would have led to years of “fruitless litigation and inaction.” Environmentalist groups had filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Portland, Ore., to block the plan.

In addition, the Obama administration will ask the federal court in the case to throw out the 2008 revisions in the critical habitat for the spotted owl because the decision-making process was “potentially jeopardized by improper political influence,” according to an Interior Department statement.

The department’s moves represent the latest in a series of steps aimed at rolling back the Bush administration’s efforts to increase access to natural resources on federal land. Next up is a review of the Northern spotted owl recovery plan, said Tom Strickland, assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks.

“There is a broadening agreement that it is time to re-evaluate the logging of old-growth forest on BLM [Bureau of Land Management] lands,” Mr. Salazar said in a statement. “There is also agreement that logging should not occur in areas that would put water quality at risk, and we should fully consider advances in forestry and increased knowledge of species’ needs over the last two decades.”

Environmentalists were jubilant at the news, and urged Democrats to go further by enacting stricter bans on harvesting trees older than 80.

“President Obama and Secretary Salazar are doing the right thing, but the Bush attack on our last ancient forests has shown us that permanent, legislative protection is needed for our last old-growth forests,” said Steve Pedery, conservation director of Oregon Wild, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit against the Bush plan.

The decision came as more bad news for rural Oregonians who depend on federal timber harvests to fund schools and other county services. The federal government owns about 58 percent of Oregon’s land.

“Obviously, we’re very disappointed. We believe the BLM did use the best science available for protecting threatened species and did follow the rules under the ONC [Oregon and California] Act,” said Jim Geisinger, executive vice president of the Associated Oregon Loggers in Salem, Ore., which has about 1,000 members.

The Northwest timber industry suffered a catastrophic blow after the Northern spotted owl was listed as a threatened species in 1990. The Clinton administration responded with the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, which cut annual timber harvests on BLM lands from 1 billion board-feet to 211 million board-feet.

The Bush plan would have allowed timber harvests to increase to about 500 million board feet, said Mr. Geisinger, far less than the pre-1994 figure but still a welcome improvement for struggling loggers and mills.

The withdrawal of the Bush revisions means that federal forests in western Oregon will again fall under the management of the Clinton plan.

The department also singled out for attention Julie McDonald, a former Interior deputy assistant secretary who has become a favorite target of the Obama administration. Thursday’s statement said that the Bush revisions may have been tainted as a result of the “improper political influence of a former Bush administration official.”

Ms. McDonald was accused of influencing scientific findings to correspond to political objectives. Although she resigned in May 2007, before the 2008 Bush administration revisions were released, the department stated Thursday that the Western Oregon Plan Revisions relied in part on spotted owl decisions that could have been improperly influenced.

Mr. Salazar also said he would try to assist rural Oregon communities by identifying “ecologically sound timber sales” that would “get wood to the mills over the coming months.”

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