WASHINGTON (CN) - A lobbying group for the timber industry claims the last-minute expansion of protections for the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument by President Barack Obama threatens to push loggers into poverty and violates a congressional mandate that protects their industry.
Under an expansion of monument protections enacted on Jan. 12, some 48,000 acres were added to the protected mountain range in southern Oregon.
Conservationists and environmentalists hailed the move, which brought a total 86,000 acres under protection in the range.
Friends of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, a conservation group, says the area contains a variety of rare plant and animal species. Its flora is a mosaic of forests, grasslands, shrublands and wet meadows that sustain a delicate and bio-diverse ecology. The range is also home to a number of sensitive watersheds and pristine lakes.
The American Forest Resource Council, which represents 100 companies in the timber industry, sued the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Interior Department, and the president on March 10, arguing that the lands former President Obama sought to protect are reserved by Congress for forest production and that the terms found in the Antiquities Act do not give a president permission "to unilaterally override Congress" and reserve the land for any use beside logging.
The Antiquities Act, passed in 1906, was championed by President Theodore Roosevelt, himself a naturalist.
The legislation empowers a president -- on their own volition -- to create national monuments from federal lands in the name of preserving significant natural, cultural or scientific features.
In the complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the timber lobby says that priorities for this particular region may be misunderstood.
"The monument expansion is against the wishes of the public and violates the federal government's promise, made 80 years ago, that Oregon's forests will be a public resource for sustained prosperity," the 16-page complaint says.
The promise referred to is the 1937 passage of the Oregon and California Railroad Grant Lands Act. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed that act into law, preserving 2.6 million acres for "permanent forest production."
For the timber companies suing, the legislation "ensured that the sustainable timber within this reserve would be 'sold, cut and removed in conformity with the principle of sustained yield for the purpose of providing a permanent source of timber supply protecting watersheds, regulating stream flow, and contributing to the economic stability of local communities and industries and providing recreational facilities."
The act is "particularly important" to uphold, the organization said, because of an already delicate balance of ownership existing between timber producing states and the feds.
The federal government claims 60 percent ownership over timber lands in the region. Restrictions in the name of conservation have already hurt the timber industry before, the plaintiff claims.
Logging constraints initiated in the early 1980s caused Oregon's timber production to be slashed by 50 percent in just 10 years.
"This dramatic drop was entirely due to federal restrictions on the harvest of federally owned forests that had been relied upon for generations," the complaint says.
To sustain productivity, the forest council said it has since relied on private forests for consistent production but "the volume of raw materials demanded by the market have made it extremely difficult for non-landholding companies to survive."
The restrictions have allegedly forced dozens of sawmills to cutback or close due to the lack of adequate supplies, the council said. Much like the grievances of coal producers on the East Coast, when resource industry jobs like theirs become difficult to replace, a surrounding region can find itself forced into an economic recession.
"Many proud residents of these timber towns have faced the painful reality of having to move out of their hometowns or risk watching their families plunge into poverty," the complaint says.
The timber companies say anywhere from 50 percent to 75 percent of profits generated from timber sales are directly allocated to 18 Oregon counties.
While conservationists might balk at the push to reopen the lands, the council offered an alternative perspective to naysayers, championing their own green-friendly initiatives.
Besides properly maintaining forests and preventing uncontrollable wildfires through active burns and thinning, the lobbying group says its organization is also a leader in "innovation of environmentally friendly wood products."
Particularly, their development of cross-laminated timber which enables construction with substantially less energy use versus the use of traditional materials like steel and concrete.
"The Oregon and California Lands are keys to this sustainable future," the complaint said.
While the plaintiff seeks declaratory judgment affirming that former President Obama's expansion of the Cascade-Siskiyou is an illegal overreach of powers of the president, a ruling in their favor could be a long shot.
Presidents have decreased the size of monuments before but no monument has ever been outright abolished. Truly challenging such a move, would involve total reformation of the Antiquities Act, which even if executive authority isn't sufficient to overturn it, Congressional authority is.
According to a Tuesday press release issued by the forest resource council's president, Travis Joseph, the lawsuit was a necessary next step after the former administration didn't respond to their concerns.
"Honestly, I wish we didn't have to file this lawsuit. We raised these issues with the Obama administration, the Oregon Congressional Delegation, and [Governor Kate Brown] back in October. We didn't get a single response," Joseph said. "We participated in the limited 'public process' to highlight our serious concerns about impacts to the local communities, mills and workers. But we were ignored."
The council is represented by attorneys Diane M. Meyers and David O. Bechtold of the Washington state firm Miller, Nash, Graham and Dunn.
Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Kimberley Brubeck declined to comment on pending litigation.
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