(CN) – A federal court judge in Washington found President Barack Obama’s expansion of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument invalid on Tuesday, contradicting an earlier ruling by a federal judge in Oregon and setting the stage for a judicial showdown.
U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon found Obama’s expansion of Cascade-Siskiyou to include 40,000 acres of “O&C Land” that must be managed for sustained timber harvest was invalid.
“When managing O&C timberland, the BLM must ensure that the land continues to produce timber,” Leon wrote in the 18-page ruling. BLM stands for Bureau of Land Management, which manages the O&C lands in question.
O&C timberland was forest land in Oregon that was designated by Congress specifically for sustainable timber production. Proceeds from the timber sales are allocated to the local Oregon counties adjacent to the monument, funding various county programs and schools.
Leon said there is no way for the federal government to square a dedication of lands that removes the ability for the federal government to log a forest when that same agency is legally required to log said forest.
The decision comes on the heels of a broader ruling that the federal government is harvesting timber well below the levels required to properly fund the local county governments as required by the O&C Act.
“This court must, therefore, conclude that the 2016 RMPs violate the O&C Act by setting aside timberland in reserves where the land is not managed for permanent forest production and the timber is not sold, cut and removed in conformity with the principle of sustained yield,” Leon said.
The O&C Act was passed in 1937 and required the Department of Interior to sustainably harvest timber on more than 2.6 million acres in Northern California and Oregon, dedicating 50% of all proceeds to 18 O&C counties and 25% to the U.S. Treasury.
The American Forest Resource Council, the plaintiff in the D.C.-based court case, celebrated the ruling.
“Judge Leon rightfully and unambiguously found that the federal O&C Act means exactly what it says, the management plans for these unique Oregon forestlands are illegal, and the expansion of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument exceeds any president’s unilateral authority,” said Travis Josephy, the group’s president. “These are major wins for the rule of law and rational, science-based forest management.”
But Leon’s ruling is offset by another handed down by U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Clarke in Oregon, who ruled the federal government has the discretion to manage the O&C Lands without making timber harvest the exclusive priority.
“Several courts have found sustained yield timber production to be the dominant purpose of the O&C Act, but no court has held that the act sets aside federal public land exclusively for timber production or that the act invalidates other federal environmental laws,” Clarke wrote.
The basic legal question at the heart of both cases is whether presidential designations made under the Antiquities Act is trump by an act of Congress, vice versa, or whether the powers of each co-equal branch can be held in tension.
Leon sided with Congress, the O&C Act invalidates Obama’s executive authority to dedicate lands, while Clarke said there is no irreconcilable conflict between the presidential designation and the congressional mandate.
Clarke’s decision has already been appealed to the Ninth Circuit.
Kristen Boyles, attorney for the environmental organizations named as defendants in both lawsuits, said they will appeal Leon’s decision.
“I don’t think we’re going to the Supreme Court,” Boyles said. “While each court must consider the appeal that comes before it, the courts are also generally aware of the issues other courts are considering.”
The two rulings involved essentially identical legal issues presented by two different plaintiffs in two different districts. Murphy Timber, a logging company based in Oregon, brought the suit in Oregon federal court.
President Bill Clinton designated the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in 2000 as one of his final acts as president. He cited the area’s scientific value as a primary reason for the dedication. Cascade-Siskiyou was the first monument to be designated as such primarily to the area’s biodiversity as the sagebrush flora of the high desert collides with the forests of the Cascade Range, interspersed with the oak woodland typical of the foothills of the Eastern Sierra.
Obama designated 48,000 of additional land to be added to the monument two weeks before leaving office in January 2017. Approximately 80% of the newly designated monument, which spans southern Oregon and northern California, places protections on O&C Lands.
However, several groups who live near the monument opposed its expansion, including the commissioners of Jackson County, which relies on O&C Act funding.
When President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, he ordered then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to undertake a full review of the entire national monument system. Zinke announced he would review 22 terrestrial national monuments as well as five marine national monuments to see if circumstances warranted alterations.
Zinke ultimately recommended shrinking two national monuments in Utah — Bears Ears National Monument and the Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument — the Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada and Cascade-Siskiyou.
The Antiquities Act of 1906 was passed by Congress and vests the president of the United States with the authority to designate national monuments on federal lands and waters.
Both Republican and Democratic presidents have used the act to set aside lands, although conservative critics argue some designations have gone beyond the intent of the original act – to preserve archaeological resources. Monument supporters note the original language of the act also allows for the preservation of natural and scientific features.