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Judge rejects environmentalist bid to halt experiment

by MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI, Capital Press 5/25/11

An environmental group has failed to convince a federal judge to stop a 2,500-acre thinning project in Oregon's Deschutes National Forest.

The U.S. Forest Service project allows the logging of trees over 21 inches in diameter even though land management plans for the national forest don't permit harvest of such large trees.

As part of the project, the number of trees over 21 inches in diameter within the Pringle Falls Experimental Forest would be reduced by about 30 percent per acre.

The agency claimed such treatments would serve the dual purpose of reducing the risk of fire and bark beetle outbreaks while allowing foresters to study the effects of thinning.

The League of Wilderness Defenders-Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project, an environmental group, claimed the Forest Service had violated environmental law by not studying alternative projects that focused on cutting smaller trees.

U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan rejected those arguments, ruling that the Forest Service was entitled to more leeway in logging projects that occur within experimental areas of national forests.

Hogan closed the case on May 20 after refusing to enjoin logging operations and entering a judgment in favor of the agency.

When research goals collide with the need to protect trees, "it would be short-sighted for courts to intervene and dictate that the Forest Service consider alternatives that hamper or eliminate research objectives," even if it means the loss of trees in the short term, he said.

The 2,500-acre project area primarily consists of 165-year-old ponderosa pines that sprang up after a large fire in the mid-1800s, according to the agency.

Though the trees have "grown exceptionally well," their growth rate has slowed in recent years and foresters believed they're at risk from wildfire and bark beetles.

Trees reach a density threshold at which they're more susceptible to such pests due to competition for resources, so the Forest Service proposed reducing the density by 25 to 50 percent below that threshold.

The environmental plaintiffs challenged the agency's science, claiming it failed to prove that trees are at imminent risk from beetles when they cross that density threshold.

Hogan found that the agency adequately supported its conclusion that thinning would be necessary to avoid a catastrophe from pests.

"Courts are not free to impose others' notions of which procedures are best or most likely to further the public good," he said.

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