GRANTS PASS, Oregon A federal appeals court on Tuesday blocked logging of old-growth forest scorched in one of the nation’s largest wildfires until a lawsuit brought by environmentalists is decided, making it unlikely the dead trees can be harvested before rotting.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted an emergency injunction sought by environmentalists in the two-year battle over one of the biggest federal logging projects in history.
The blaze burned 500,000 acres in southwestern Oregon in 2002 and was the biggest wildfire in the nation that year. It has become the focus of an intense political and scientific debate between the Bush administration and the timber industry on one side and environmentalists on the other.
The two sides have clashed repeatedly over whether to log and reforest the millions of acres of national forest that burn every year or leave them largely to recover on their own.
“The court’s action today gives us a chance to find some balance here that will actually be good for the forests and the people in the region, instead of just logging everything in sight,” said Todd True, an attorney representing environmentalists.
The ruling comes a week before environmentalists, the Forest Service, the timber industry, and Oregon officials were to begin mediation in an attempt to reach a settlement.
“This plays right into the continuing agenda of the environmental community to litigate and obstruct lawful and sound land management practices,” said Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, a pro-timber group.
The timber industry may ask the full 9th Circuit to review the injunction because the judge’s ruling makes logging unlikely before next spring, when the trees will be worth little after standing dead for nearly three years, West said.
The injunction covers timber sales on 6,600 acres of old-growth forest reserves that were designated primarily for fish and wildlife habitat under the Northwest Forest Plan, the 1994 policy adopted to protect the Northern spotted owl and salmon from logging.
Lightning started four fires in July 2002 in the Klamath Mountains that merged into one large blaze. Over the next two years, the Forest Service plans to sell 370 million board feet of timber from 19,465 of the burned acres.