USA — Big trees that survived a wildfire on the Umatilla National Forest inEastern Washington must be left standing pending the outcome of a lawsuitchallenging the decision to cut them for timber, a federal appeals court ruledMonday.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that U.S.District Judge Lonny R. Suko in Spokane, Wash., erred when he failed to grant apreliminary injunction halting logging on 9,423 acres of salvage timber sales inan area burned by the 2005 School fire.
The appeals court agreed with conservation groups that a prohibition againstlogging “live trees” larger than 21 inches in diameter, known as theEastside Screens, applies to all trees that are not dead yet, even if the U.S.Forest Service has decided they will be dead soon.
Neither the National Forest Management Act, nor the local forest plan definesthe term “live trees,” so the common meaning that they are all treesthat have not yet died applies, wrote Judge Susan Graber.
“The Forest Service is free, of course, to amend the Eastside Screens toallow logging of old-growth dying trees,” the judge wrote. “Unless anduntil it does so, there is no basis to adopt its proposed definition.”
The Eastside Screens were adopted on nine Northwest national forests east ofthe Cascade Range in 1994 to promote old growth forests and the species thatlive in them while a comprehensive management plan was being developed. Byprotecting the most commercially valuable trees, they have significantly reducedfederal logging in the region.
About a third of the trees sold for logging after the School fire have beencut, including live trees that would have been protected by a temporaryrestraining order, said Mike Petersen, executive director of the Lands Councilin Spokane, Wash., the lead plaintiff in the case. Snow has prevented loggingthe rest until spring.
“The agencies are looking for any excuse they can to log these big trees,”said Doug Heiken of Oregon Wild, another plaintiff in the case. “Salvagewas the one loophole they had on these Eastside Screens.
“They stretched the rule beyond recognition, taking trees that weredamaged but certainly not dead. Any tree that has lived 300 years out there hassurvived fires before and can survive fires again, but may not survive the chainsaw if we don’t give them a chance.”
Umatilla National Forest Supervisor Kevin Martin, the defendant in thelawsuit, did not immediately return a telephone call for comment.
Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, a timberindustry group, said the ruling pointed out the need to revise the EastsideScreens.
“When we have judges in San Francisco second-guessing trainedprofessional foresters on the determination if a tree is going to live after acatastrophic wildfire it is crazy,” said West.
“If we wait any longer there is going to be no value left in thissalvage potential and not only is the federal government going to lose out, butso will the people who work in the woods and the communities in which theylive.”