Lawsuit Chops Down Logging Plans on the Elliott

The Roseburg News-Review by Don Jenkins
November 15, 2012
 
A lawsuit filed by conservation groups has caused the Oregon Department of Forestry to sharply scale back logging plans in the Elliott State Forest for 2013, a year in which the state planned to ramp up timber production in the 93,000-acre coastal forest.
 
The three groups that brought the suit released a statement Wednesday hailing a decision by the department to defer most timber sales planned for next year.
The department, according to a Sept. 19 memo from District Forester Jim Young, suspended the sales because of the federal lawsuit filed in May.
 
Conservationists allege plans to increase timber harvests by 60 percent in the Elliott violate the federal Endangered Species Act by jeopardizing the marbled murrelet.
 
The state is contesting the lawsuit, and there’s been no ruling. But for now, the forestry department will suspend plans to log 914 acres, slashing from next year’s harvest plan 46 million board feet of timber with a gross value of $16 million.
 
Instead, the department plans to log 13.8 million board feet, with an estimated gross value ofโ€จ $4.1 million.
 
Cascadia Wildlands spokesman Josh Laughlin said Wednesday the conservation groups hope the pause in logging will lead to the state reconsidering how it will manage the Elliott.
 
“This clearly provides some much-needed interim relief for the imperiled marbled murrelet,” he said. “Our goal with the case is to work with the state to balance its plans.”
 
The Center for Biological Diversity and the Audubon Society of Portland joined Cascadia in the lawsuit.
 
The three groups and the state are in a dispute over logging in Oregon’s largest state forest, spread over portions of Douglas and Coos counties.
Conservation groups sued after the State Land Board approved increasing annual timber harvests in the Elliott from 25 million board feet to approximately 40 million board feet.
 
In recent years, timber harvests have raised $6 million to $8 million a year for schools and the two counties. Forestry officials estimated $9 million to $13 million would be generated through increased harvests. Under the scaled back plan, the common school fund will net an estimated $3.7 million, forestry department spokesman Dan Postrel said today.
 
The department estimates that each 1 million board feet of timber cut in the Elliott creates 11 to 13 jobs with an average annual wage of $36,000.
Citing the pending litigation, Postrel declined to elaborate on why the department voluntarily deferred timber sales.
 
State Rep. Tim Freeman, who supports increased logging on the Elliott, said he was initially surprised the department chose to suspend logging. He said forestry officials explained to him that the department hoped to strengthen its position in court by voluntarily waiting for the suit to be resolved before increasing timber harvests.
 
“I’m not saying it was the right decision, but I understand why they’re doing it,” said Freeman, a Roseburg Republican. “If it works, it’s a great choice.” In the meantime, the state will lose revenue and jobs, he said. “There is a cost to waiting.”
 
Postrel said the department will continue to look for ways to increase logging that won’t run afoul of the allegations contained in the lawsuit.
 
Laughlin said the conservation groups are not opposed to increasing the “controversy-free volume” of timber by thinning younger tree stands to make them healthier.
 
“We want to see the jobs created restoring the forest,” he said.
 
A timber industry spokeswoman, American Forest Resource Council Vice President Ann Forest Burns, hesitated to second-guess the state’s legal strategy, though she said the advocacy group generally opposes agencies halting logging “just because they’ve been sued.”
 
“That accomplishes the purpose of the lawsuit without a ruling on the validity of the lawsuit,” she said.
 
“There’s also a definite question about the responsibility to the taxpayers who paid for the work that went into the harvest plan. I would hope the department would stand behind their work,” she said.
 
The State Land Board — made up of Gov. John Kitzhaber, Treasurer Ted Wheeler and Secretary of State Kate Brown — OK’d a plan that requires forest managers to avoid disturbing marbled murrelets, while opening up the possibility of logging on older portions of the Elliott. Almost half the forest is covered with trees 90 to 145 years old, Postrel said.
 
Conservation groups argue the state should designate areas in the forest as marbled murrelet habitat as part of a long-range plan to revive the bird’s population.
 
Freeman said the Legislature should make clear to federal courts the state’s wishes by passing legislation to require annual harvests of a certain percentage of new growth in the Elliott.
 
The department of forestry estimates 75 million board of feet of timber grows in the Elliott State Forest each year.
 
The lawsuit is Cascadia Wildlands v. Kitzhaber and was filed in the U.S. District Court of Oregon.
 
• City Editor Don Jenkins can be reached at 541-957-4201 or djenkins@nrtoday.com.