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Feds try to dodge suit over logging plan for Oregon forests

The Bureau of Land Management argued conservationists haven't been injured since the project is in the early stages and no sales to timber companies are imminent.

(CN) — The legal fight over Oregon forests and endangered species continued Thursday, where attorneys for Cascadia Wildland and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management met with U.S. Magistrate Judge Mustafa T. Kasubhai for a phone hearing on the feds' motion to dismiss.

In September 2022, Cascadia Wildland and Oregon Wild sued the bureau for approving a landscape plan within the Siuslaw project area, a bureau-administered forestland west of Eugene, Oregon, authorized for commercial timber harvest.

By issuing an environmental assessment and finding of no significant impact, Cascadia claims the bureau approved decades of logging projects on 13,225 acres across 10 separate watersheds and old-growth forest habitats. Moreover, the group says the plan’s inevitable logging will harm several fish and wildlife species protected under the Endangered Species Act, including northern spotted owls, marbled murrelets and Coho and Chinook salmon.

Yet Cascadia argues the real issue is that despite the project’s large scale and the number of resources disturbed by clearcutting, the government refused to prepare a thorough environmental impact statement and consider the project’s impacts under National Environmental Policy Act. The group also claims the bureau excluded dozens of environmental issues it previously identified from its project analysis “on the grounds that they did not relate to the Siuslaw project’s narrowly defined purpose of timber production.”

“Consequently, the agency gave no in-depth consideration to the project’s effects on, inter alia, protected fish and wildlife species, invasive species infestations, detrimental soil disturbance, or carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas emissions,” Cascadia says in its complaint, adding the agency then failed to disclose the project’s site-specific impacts.

Cascadia added that another logging project slated near the Siuslaw project — the "N126 project" — will overlap with the landscape plan and have significant cumulative effects on fish and wildlife, erosion and water quality, invasive species infestations and wildlife habitat. Cascadia sued the bureau over that project in May 2022.

In bringing the most recent lawsuit, Cascadia hopes the court will vacate the Siuslaw project.

Representing the government, attorney Alexis Romero argued Cascadia’s lawsuit came at an “unusually early stage and without any imminent kind of sales,” thereby lacking the injury necessary for standing. And as also noted within the bureau’s motion to dismiss, Romero highlighted the landscaping plan is not self-implementing, meaning it does not automatically authorize timber harvests or other ground-disturbing activities that could harm Cascadia’s interests.

“Instead, a timber harvest could only go forward if BLM — after additional NEPA documentation and a 30-day public comment period — makes a separate decision in the future to implement such a harvest,” the bureau said in its motion to dismiss.

Cascadia and Oregon Wild attorney Erin Hogan disagreed with Romero’s characterization of whether the bureau is required to log the entire area, explaining all 1,325 acres are subject to the Oregon and California Railroad Lands Act and managed for perpetual timber production.

To the extent of when the next project will occur exactly, Romero said the bureau doesn’t have an exact estimate.

“But we don’t expect there to be an option for a timber sale for this plan for at least another year,” the attorney said.

“Isn’t that imminent enough for the purposes of standing?” Judge Kasubhai asked. “A year isn’t very far from now, given the way in which litigation unfolds.”

Romero said Cascadia needed to establish and point to a particular tract of land in the forest as the source of injury. Even if a year were enough, Romero added, “Nobody knows where exactly the timber sale will occur.”

Hogan took up this point on rebuttal, insisting the bureau has committed itself to logging the entire area of the forest.

“Now BLM is simply asking that plaintiff guess which order in which it’s going to do so, and that we challenge it on a unit by unit basis,” Hogan said.

Cascadia’s attorney added that since the bureau typically goes through several rounds of auctions even if projects are not described as planned, it’s not usually the standard the Ninth Circuit has imposed to identify each particular logging sale to establish standing to challenge a greater project.

Should Kasubhai reject bureau's motion to dismiss, Hogan said it's Cascadia’s intent to cross-motion for judgment on the record. However, Romero maintained a firm stance that a procedural injury is insufficient and Cascadia cannot challenge the project moving forward.

By the end of both arguments, Kasubhai adjourned the hearing with no indication of how he might rule.

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