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Judge Places Research Above Forest’s Health

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) - A federal judge refused to stop the Forest Service from logging nearly three-quarters of an old growth Ponderosa Pine forest in Oregon's Cascade mountain range, concluding that the service's experimental management goals trumped an environmental group's concerns about what the judge called the "short-term" health of the forest.

The Forest Service plans to log 70 percent of trees larger than six inches in diameter in the 2,554-acre Lookout Mountain unit of the Pringle Falls Experimental Forest, which is part of the Deschutes National Forest. The Forest Service, which uses the experimental forest to try out various forest management strategies, claims the drastic thinning is necessary to prevent "catastrophic loss" from fire and insects.

But the League of Wilderness Defenders - Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project sued the Forest Service in federal court, claiming it had invented a boogeyman. The environmental group said the thinning project would cause the real catastrophe, by killing more trees than fire and insects combined.

Judge Michael Hogan said the environmental group's concerns about the forest's health had to be weighed alongside the importance of the Forest Service's research goals.

"When such research activities on thinning and management techniques collide with a need to reduce risk to widespread tree mortality, it would be short sighted for the courts to intervene and dictate that the Forest Service consider alternatives that hamper or eliminate research objectives to reduce or obviate actions that may, in the short term, result in tree mortality from the thinning operations themselves," Hogan wrote.

The forest in the Lookout Mountain Unit regenerated after burning in a high-intensity wildfire 150 years ago. The fire burned in a typical "mosaic pattern" which wiped out some areas while leaving others untouched. Today, the area is part ancient forest, untouched by the 1845 wildfire, interspersed with stands of 165-year-old conifers.

Since the area burned in a "natural" fire before the institution of fire suppression or logging by settlers, and regenerated on its own, with no help from human replanting, the forests of Lookout Mountain are "one of the last remaining reference conditions in the eastern Oregon Cascades - if not the last remaining reference conditions," the League's complaint states.

Such an area is "an ecological research treasure, where natural conifer regeneration and succession after natural high-intensity fire (in 1845) can be studied, as can the response of many wildlife species, including cavity-nesting birds, to these natural successional processes," according to the complaint. (Parentheses in complaint.)

The Forest Service agreed on the importance of the area, warning in its administrative record that "this important site could be lost if stand densities are not reduced. Such disturbance would mean the loss of existing high-value, long-term studies and eliminate most future research opportunities."

The service said the thinning project was part of an experiment to discover the best way to help forests grow large trees while reintroducing natural disturbances like wildfire. The service also posed questions about the succession of generations of trees within the same forest, the role of climate change and the impact of multigenerational stands of trees on forest resiliency

Hogan dismissed the environmental group's proposal that the Forest Service follow the standards set by the Deschutes National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan by limiting thinning to trees that measure less than 12 inches in diameter.

The Forest Service had rejected this proposal, claiming the restriction would keep it from thinning the forest to the "target stand density" that it wanted to research.

Hogan said the proposal would force the court to "ignore the research aspect" of the Forest Service's plan and assume that the service only included the research aspect as a "guise" to force the adoption of the thinning project.

The environmental group said the Forest Service used fuzzy science to back up its thinning plan, claiming that the service's own data show that, under the worst-case scenario combination of severe insect predation and high-intensity wildfire, between 17 and 31 percent of the trees on Lookout Mountain would die.

Judge Michael Hogan rejected this assertion, writing that the Forest Service had considered numerous studies that backed up its data and noted that the plan had undergone a peer-review process.

Hogan said the service fulfilled its obligations under the National Environmental Policy Act to take a "hard look" at the impact of its plan and to inform the public of its process.

"Plaintiff confuses action taken to avoid a threat with action responding to an occurrence," Hogan wrote. "Simply because tree mortality can't be exactly quantified with respect to thinning operations and the tree mortality can only be estimated if stand densities grow unchecked, does not mean the agency failed to take a hard look at the issue."

And although the National Environmental Policy Act requires the service to evaluate the environmental impact of its projects and to inform the public about these considerations, the act "does not require the Forest Service to elevate environmental concerns over other appropriate considerations," Hogan wrote.

The group also claimed the Forest Service refused to consider evidence that the spotted owl actually benefits from high-intensity fire, preferentially choosing areas that have burned for foraging. Instead, the government allegedly told the public that the indicator species would benefit from the logging.

And the Forest Service acknowledged that its plan would reduce the number of snags, or dead trees with broken-off tops. Many animals, especially cavity-dwelling birds like the spotted owl, depend upon snags for nesting habitat. The logging plan would "reduce the already low snag levels in future decades ... rendering less than optimal habitat completely unsuitable for imperiled [management indicator species] and other wildlife species for up to 150 years," the League said.

Hogan noted that the service planned to leave untouched all snags that do not "create a safety hazard." The service also concluded in its records that its plan would eventually increase the number of large snags, because the larger trees it was trying to encourage would one day become snags. And fewer, larger snags are better than more numerous, but smaller snags, the Forest Service contended.

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