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Judge sides with environmentalists over federal logging project in Oregon

While the government argued it was way too early in the project to sue, Supreme Court precedent now allows people who live near or enjoy affected areas to bring actions before any trees are cut down.

(CN) — Oregon environmentalists inched toward a win against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management on Friday after a U.S. magistrate judge recommended denial of the bureau’s motion to dismiss a challenge to its proposed logging project within the Siuslaw project area west of Eugene.

According to the suit brought by Cascadia Wildlands and Oregon Wild in 2022, the bureau’s planned “landscape” project in its Siuslaw project area violates the National Environmental Policy Act because the agency failed to prepare an environmental impact statement and consider the project’s overall impacts to the bureau-administered forestland. In doing so, the groups claim the bureau excluded dozens of previously identified environmental issues from its project analysis “on the grounds that they did not relate to the Siuslaw project’s narrowly defined purpose of timber production.”

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

Another logging project slated near the Siuslaw project — the "N126 project" — will also overlap with the landscape plan and have significant cumulative effects on fish and wildlife, erosion and water quality, invasive species infestations and wildlife habitat, according to Cascadia’s complaint.

Attorneys for the groups and bureau met with U.S. Magistrate Judge Mustafa Kasubhai in early March to debate the case’s merits, where government attorney Alexis Romero argued the lawsuit came at an “unusually early stage and without any imminent kind of sales,” thereby lacking the injury necessary for standing. The bureau’s motion to dismiss also highlighted how 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.

On Friday, however, Judge Kasubhai disagreed with the bureau, finding the agency identified and mapped out specific logging tracts within its landscaping plan, making logging inevitable.

“The BLM itself, in the EA, states that it would not be authorized to elect a non-logging alternative because it ‘would not be in conformance’ with the RMP,” Kasubhai wrote in his findings and recommendation. “That is, the BLM considers itself to be committed to logging in the Siuslaw HLB and it will do so within the Siuslaw project area.”

Kasubhai also rejected the bureau’s argument against plaintiffs’ interests, stating that the groups have demonstrated that some members have regularly enjoyed recreation activities in distinct geographic areas planned for logging.

“The court here is not asked to assume that plaintiffs’ members will stumble upon an affected area out of a potential 150 million acres, but to find a geographic nexus in the 13,225 acres that plaintiffs’ members live next to and routinely visit. Plaintiffs has established such a nexus,” Kasubhai wrote.

The groups’ claims are also ripe for review, Kasubhai decided, as the Ninth Circuit previously adopted the U.S. Supreme Court’s pronouncement that “a person with standing who is injured by a failure to comply with NEPA procedure may complain of that failure at the time the failure takes place, for the claim can never get riper.”

“Plaintiffs here make procedural NEPA claims. The Ninth Circuit unambiguously regards such challenges as ripe as soon as the alleged procedural failure occurs,” Kasubhai wrote. “While defendants may ‘respectfully disagree’ with the Ninth Circuit’s holding on this issue, this court is bound by it. Accordingly, plaintiffs’ claims are ripe, and defendants’ motion to dismiss on this basis should be denied.”

U.S. District Judge Michael McShane must sign off on or reject Kasubhai's recommendations.

A Bureau of Land Management spokesperson did not return a request for comment by press time.

Cascadia Wildlands’ legal director and attorney Nick Cady said he expected Kasubhai’s recommendation and that the bureau’s resistance to their claims is unusual given that Cascadia’s members recreate and live nearby the project area.

According to Cady, the bureau’s new strategy to plan very broad timber sales without pinpointing its exact planned parcels for logging is what prompted the lawsuit, particularly in how the agency is putting the “cart before the horse” by proactively claiming that its logging project wouldn’t affect the environment because they promise to follow the law.

In its announcement of the lawsuit, Cascadia said the bureau is required under federal law to consider the negative impacts of its proposed logging on the region’s communities against the benefits of timber volume generation logging. The organization further noted that many residents strongly oppose the logging project, believing it will contribute to drinking water contamination, increased fire hazards, loss of recreation, soil erosion, more road construction and the destruction of wildlife habitat.

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