(CN) – The 9th Circuit cleared the path for old-growth logging on 618 acres of the Deschutes National Forest in central Oregon as a means of thinning trees to protect the northern spotted owl’s habitat from fire.
The National Forest Service claims the plan is in the best interest of the forest’s species, even though some of the trees that will be cut are thousands of years old and part of the area’s intricate ecosystem.
Logging is permitted in certain areas of the 200,000 acres of wilderness that make up the Deschutes National Forest “in order to balance environmental and economic needs,” according to the ruling.
In 2003, 21,000 acres of the forest burned and killed off all the trees. In order to protect the area’s habitat, the Forest Service came up with a plan to reduce the potential of future fire damage by thinning some of the area’s oldest trees. The agency wanted to remove the older trees because of rot and disease that could make them more susceptible to burning.
The Forest Service decided to take out trees through logging, regeneration cuts and salvage harvesting. The plan calls for management of 7,798 acres and would harvest about 14.4 million board-feet of lumber. It proposes commercial thinning of trees on 2,023 acres of nesting, roosting and foraging habitat and would not involve any current spotted owl territory. But the agency admitted that the plan could affect the ability of new owls to locate and establish a territory.
The League of Wilderness Defenders-Blue Mountain Biodiversity Project, the Cascadia Wildlands Project and the Sierra Club challenged the project in federal court, claiming the trees are an intricate part of the area’s ecosystem that does not need human intervention to survive.
A federal judge agreed and blocked the Forest Service from moving forward with the plan.
On appeal, a 2-1 majority in Portland reversed, saying the agency knows best how to preserve the area’s habitat and wildlife. The panel ruled that taking action to avoid future natural destruction was an environmentally and economically sound decision.
“The Conservation Groups’ statement of harms obfuscates the issue, which is not how long the harms might last but whether the benefits will outweigh the costs in the long-term,” Judge Milan D. Smith, Jr. wrote for the majority.
In a dissenting opinion, Judge Richard Paez quoted John Muir, a preservationist and the man largely credited with creating Yosemite National Park: “It took more than 3,000 years to make some of the trees in these Western woods – trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty. … God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods, but he cannot save them from fools – only Uncle Sam can do that.”