By Mateusz Perkowski

Capital Press

A federal judge has overturned a 100-acre Oregon logging project because the U.S. Bureau of Land Management didn’t establish buffers around recreational trails or sufficiently evaluate fire risks.

U.S. District Judge Michael McShane has determined that BLM violated federal land management and environmental policy statutes by approving the timber sale near Springfield.

Preliminary work on the logging project was expected to begin in October, but will now be postponed until the agency re-analyzes the timber sale to comply with the judge’s orders.

“We’re excited about getting it through the last hoops. We are disappointed about yet another round of analysis,” said Lawson Fite, attorney for the Seneca Sawmill Co., which plans to log the site and intervened in the case.

While the judge has ordered the BLM to reconsider aspects of the project, the ruling affirms that timber harvest is compatible with logging in this area, he said.

The timeline for restarting the project remains unclear at this point, Fite said. “I would hope the agency would be able to fix the fairly narrow issues identified in fairly short order.”

Nick Cady, attorney for the environmental plaintiffs, said the project will actually have to be substantially revised because logging can’t occur directly over recreational trails, effectively reducing the timber harvest area by at least one-third.

Cascadia Wildlands and Oregon Wild, the plaintiffs, don’t want to stop logging in the area entirely but would prefer the agency relied on thinning rather than forcing recreational users to walk and bike through clear-cuts, he said.

“We think there are ways for BLM to get a win-win,” Cady said.

The project is within a 1,000-acre “extensive recreation management area” next to property in the Thurston Hills owned by the Willamalane Parks and Recreation District.

Although BLM provided for 8.5 miles of trails and 15% tree retention within the project boundary, environmental groups sued earlier this year over the alleged negative impacts of logging on scenic and recreational values.

McShane has now agreed with some of their arguments, finding that BLM improperly failed to set aside a “recreation management zone” to spare trees around trails from harvest contrary to its own framework for the area.

The judge said the BLM effectively planned to “cut the trees first, zone the buffer later” due to economic and operational considerations with “no basis or explanation for this argument.”

“In essence, they argue that it is simply easier to paint on a blank canvas,” McShane said. “But allowing logging and then establishing a Recreation Management Zone at some unspecified later date — if at all — seems to defeat the Zone’s very purpose.”

The judge also faulted BLM for not analyzing the project’s fire hazard effects in detail at the local scale after the agency concluded that it sufficiently looked at wildfire issues under an earlier “resource management plan” for 1.3 million acres of its property in the region.

Since the timber sale amounted to less than 1% of the total forested watershed — the vast majority of which is owned by private timber companies — the BLM decided that it has minimal influence over “landscape-level” fire risks.

McShane has ruled that BLM “improperly diluted the proposed action’s effects” to understate the “effects of regeneration logging” and “deprived the public of meaningful participation.”

“An agency cannot minimize an activity’s environmental impact by adopting a broad scale analysis and marginalizing the activity’s site-specific impact,” the judge said.

McShane has ordered the agency to reconsider its plans for the project to “adequately” disclose and analyze fire hazards, and to designate harvest buffers for trails before logging begins.

While the judge held that BLM violated the Federal Land Policy and Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act in these respects, he rejected some of the arguments made by Cascadia Wildlands and Oregon Wild.

Specifically, McShane determined that BLM wasn’t required to preserve the area’s forested characteristics for recreational users, such as mountain bikers who may not be concerned about scenery.

“The framework does not prioritize forest canopy or naturalness, and there is no evidence in the record that such values are universal,” he said.

The agency did take a “hard look” at the effects logging would have on recreational experiences but it’s “not responsible for meeting plaintiffs’ subjective expectations of what any given visitor’s recreational experience should resemble,” McShane said.