Environmentalists asked a federal judge Wednesday to temporarily block logging of the first timber to be auctioned in a national forest roadless area since the Bush administration eased logging restrictions, arguing new studies show the logging will kill young trees and increase the danger of wildfire.
Lawyers for the U.S. Forest Service countered that the 362 acres within the Mike's Gulch timber sale boundaries amount to such a small percentage of the 500,000 acres burned by the 2002 Biscuit fire and the 188,000 acres of roadless area on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, that it does not meet the test of irreparable harm needed to stop the logging.
U.S. Magistrate Owen Panner said he would rule on the request next Wednesday, noting that the primary issue will be whether any harm that might be caused by logging on the tract in southern Oregon is significant enough to justify the Forest Service starting the planning process over.
Panner's statement echoed a ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week, refusing to stop the logging under a different lawsuit.
The Forest Service and the buyer of the timber agreed to hold off logging on the 362 acres until Panner rules next week. Of the 362 acres, 261 acres are in units that would be logged.
The timber was auctioned off last Friday, regenerating a campaign by environmentalists to stop it despite several court rulings against them.
Arguments for, against
Roadless areas are tracts on national forests generally larger than 5,000 acres that have long been considered too remote and too rugged to be economical for logging. They were inventoried as part of a national survey of potential new wilderness areas, where logging is prohibited by act of Congress.
Attorneys for the environmentalists argued that several scientific studies have come forward since the Forest Service planned the Mike's Gulch sale that conclude logging after a wildfire kills naturally sprouting seedlings, and leaves more fuel on the ground for future fires.
"The entire premise of this project has been rebutted by these scientific studies," attorney Marianne Dugan said in arguing for blocking the logging.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Odell said the primary purpose of the timber sale was economic, and that replanting the area and reducing the future danger of wildfire were secondary.
"This really is a policy issue," he said.
Dugan countered that allowing the logging was "chipping away" at forest protections.
Oregon seeks to stop
Meanwhile, the Oregon attorney general has yet to file a motion to block the logging based on a third lawsuit brought by the governors of Oregon, Washington, California and New Mexico challenging the Bush administration's new rules easing logging restrictions in roadless areas, said spokeswoman Stephanie Soden.
Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who wants to protect all roadless areas in Oregon from logging, said last week he would seek a temporary injunction in the case.
The Clinton administration generated rules that went into effect in 2001 putting 58.5 million acres of roadless areas around the country off-limits to most logging, based on scientific evidence they were far more valuable as sources of clean water, and pristine fish and wildlife habitat, than as timber.
But pressure has been growing from the timber industry to open them to logging, as they represent the last big source of untouched old growth timber in the country.
The Bush administration has been working to generate more timber from national forests and overhauled the rules for roadless logging in 2004, giving governors the option to petition for protecting them or opening them to logging.
The U.S. Forest Service has characterized the Mike's Gulch timber sale as overdue rehabilitation for an area burned in the 2002 Biscuit fire, maintaining that it was developed during a window when neither set of roadless rules were in effect, so is not governed by either of them. It has also determined that the area is not likely to be judged suitable to be formally designated as wilderness.