Court: BLM Violated Rodent's Protection
A federal appeals court on Monday ruled the U.S. Bureau of Land Management illegally downgraded protections for the red tree vole to make the two sales possible.
The three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco found that the BLM failed to conduct a public review before changing the classification of the red tree vole, whose numbers are dwindling because of clear-cutting and other forestry practices. The public review is mandated under the "survey and manage" provisions of the Northwest Forest Plan.
The Northwest Forest Plan reduced timber harvests on federal lands west of the Cascade Range in Oregon, Washington and Northern California by more than 80 percent to protect habitat for the threatened northern spotted owl, salmon and hundreds of other species. The bureau has been much more aggressive than the U.S. Forest Service in trying to reach the timber harvest goals, which have never been met.
The "survey and manage" provisions of the plan require the bureau and the Forest Service to look for hundreds of species before cutting old growth forests, and protect enough habitat to maintain the species. The Bush administration eased the provisions in 2004, but they were reinstated by a federal judge this year.
By downgrading protections for the red tree vole, the bureau no longer had to safeguard nesting sites with a 10-acre buffer zone and conduct surveys for the rodents before selling timber in their habitat.
The bureau had argued that flexibility was a necessary element of the Northwest Forest Plan, and that lowering protections for the red tree vole was based on a minor change in data, and wasn't a significant enough action to require a full public review.
Judge Dorothy Nelson that it was unreasonable to conclude the change of data was minor.
The ruling blocked two timber sales, but its impact is likely to be limited to patches of old growth forests largely within Oregon, where the red tree vole's core habitat lies, said Stephanie Parent, attorney for the lead plaintiff, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center in Ashland.
"By issuing internal memos that open up potentially thousands of acres of old growth forests to logging, the Bush administration has been playing fast and loose with public involvement," said Joseph Vaile, campaign manager for the center.
The U.S. Forest Service and BLM are rewriting the rules for "survey and manage" and the required environmental impact statement on the proposed changes is expected next March.
Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, which represents the timber industry, said the rewritten rules might nullify the appellate court's ruling.
"While (the ruling) is significant in the short term, it may be moot in the long term, depending on what they do," he said.