Judge blocks timber sales over sea bird nesting

November 27, 2013

by Jeff  Barnard, AP Environmental Writer
GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) — A federal judge has put 11 state forest timber sales on hold while she considers a lawsuit contending they threaten the survival of the marbled murrelet, a protected seabird that nests in old-growth forests.
The preliminary injunction issued last week was a blow to the new endangered species conservation policy adopted by the state to produce more timber from state lands.
Besides the 11 timber sales, the order covers all stands occupied by murrelets on the Clatsop, Tillamook and Elliot state forests.
In issuing the order, U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken in Eugene wrote that conservation groups have shown they are likely to win the lawsuit on its merits, and leaving the sales open to logging could cause irreparable harm.
At issue is whether the state's logging goals on the three forests violate the Endangered Species Act by destroying habitat for the marbled murrelet, a threatened species. The bird lives at sea, but it flies up to 50 miles inland to lay its eggs on the large, mossy branches of mature and old-growth trees.
"This ruling should send a signal to the leadership of Oregon that balanced forest plans are critically needed to truly protect the murrelet," Francis Eartherington, conservation director for Cascadia Wildlands, said in a statement. "The state of Oregon's forest practices are the most reckless in the Pacific Northwest and are pushing the marbled murrelet closer to extinction."
Earlier this year, the state Department of Forestry withdrew the sales pending the outcome of the lawsuit, and planned instead to offer a smaller number of alternative sales elsewhere.
The Oregon Department of Forestry estimated the withdrawal of the 10 sales on the Elliott would cost the Common School Fund $9.85 million in lost income next year. Unlike other state forests, the Elliott is controlled by the State Land Board, with logging proceeds going to the Common School Fund.
The 11th sale is on the Tillamook.
The state managed the Elliott for years by protecting habitat for threatened and endangered species like the murrelet but scrapped that approach last year after federal biologists refused to approve revisions that allowed more logging. Instead, the state adopted a policy used by private timberland owners that refrains from logging where protected species are actually living.
Oregon Department of Forestry spokesman Dan Postrel said the order was expected. He added that a separate order from the judge removing the state Board of Forestry and state Land Board as defendants in the lawsuit suggested that the endangered species conservation policy they adopted may not be held responsible.
Jim Geisinger, executive director of the Associated Oregon Loggers, said the loss of the timber was a big blow to nearby timber communities. He added he was disappointed that the judge would block the timber sales on state lands, when the murrelet's habitat needs were supposed to be satisfied entirely on federal lands.
Geisinger said the new policy should be preferable, because it prohibited any individuals of a protected species from being killed, while habitat conservation plans allowed some individuals to be killed incidentally.