updated 10/4/2007 11:37:50 AM ET 2007-10-04T15:37:50

The U.S. Forest Service has agreed to withdraw plans to log spotted owl habitat that burned last year in the Central Oregon Cascade Range.

The settlement came in a lawsuit brought by conservation groups opposing plans to log 190 acres of the Deschutes National Forest outside Sisters, Ore., that burned in the Black Crater fire.

The lawsuit said the timber sale violated federal law by distorting science that shows spotted owls still use forests after they burn and by keeping the public out of the decision making.

The lawsuit also said the project would violate the Northwest Forest Plan by logging in an old growth forest reserve primarily to make money from the trees, and not to improve the forest.

"Burned forests are healthy forests, and logging sets back their natural recovery," Jay Lininger, director of the Cascadia Wildlands Project, said in a statement.

The Forest Service admitted no wrongdoing but is withdrawing seven of the eight logging units.

Mollie Chaudet, litigation coordinator for the Deschutes National Forest, said Tuesday that the service agreed to the settlement soon after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in another case that salvage logging could not be done in old growth forest reserves under the Northwest Forest Plan, if the primary purpose was economic.

"It was very carefully crafted and designed to have very little effect on those components of (old growth) reserve that would be important on a landscape scale," Chaudet said. "But for the actual areas that were going to be logged, the purpose was to get some economic recovery of the material in there."

The Forest Service prepared the Black Crater sale under what is known as a categorical exclusion, which allows small projects to go forward without an environmental analysis if they are not expected to cause environmental damage.

Chaudet added that the logging plan made a mistake in citing one study on spotted owls and burned forests, but that local surveys showed owls no longer fully using burned forests.

Under the settlement, the government will allow trees to be harvested on only 27 acres next to privately owned timberlands that have been logged since the fire. That timber was sold to Butte Timberlands Inc. last month. The other 173 acres will not be sold, Lininger said.

The Northwest Forest Plan was adopted in 1994 to protect old growth forest habitat for the northern spotted owl, salmon and other threatened species while allowing some logging. It designates some areas primarily for logging, and others primarily for fish and wildlife habitat.

The Bush administration has been trying for years to boost timber output under the plan, and it has regularly been brought to court by conservation groups over logging after wildfires.

Last year, the Forest Service won a court fight over logging in the area burned by the 2002 Biscuit fire outside Grants Pass, Ore.

But conservation groups were able to win a similar lawsuit that shut down logging on U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands burned the same year by the Timbered Rock fire outside Medford, Ore.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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