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Judge okays Spotted Owl habitat destruction on the Deschutes--Forest Service "thrilled"

Last fall, The Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project filed suit in federal court to stop the McCache Vegetation Management Project west of Sisters on the Deschutes National Forest. On May 12th, U.S. District Judge Owen Panner ruled in favor of the Forest "Service" on all allegations, despite that they failed to protect aquatic habitats, neglected endangered species, ignored,cumulative effects, and didn't document the changed conditions from the Cache Mountain, link, and B&B Complex wildfires of 2002 and 2003.
I'm sorry that I don't have a lot of time, or I would write an article instead of just reposting this one. Fortunately, this article does include several quotes from Karen Coulter, director for Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project (BMBP). This is from Bend.com, the online version of the print paper, the Bend Bugle. If folks are inclined, you can post comments to this article on their website:
 http://bend.com/news/ar_view%5E3Far_id%5E3D15723.htm

Like all of the sales they try to protect, BMBP did extensive field monitoring for this one. Located on Cache Mountain, the Forest Service named the area they wanted logged the "McCache Vegetation Management Project". That's right, "McCache", which makes it explicit that they view the forest as a commodity. And of course they don't call them timber sales any more...

Cache Mountain is on the west side of the Deschutes and is a transition zone between the moist forests on the west side of the Cascades and the drier forests on the east side of the Cascades. Some of the sale units for the McCache sale are on North facing slopes and other areas with wetter climates where the forests are naturally
more dense.

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By Barney Lerten
Bend.com
Last Updated: Tuesday, May 25, 2004 10:00 AM
Reference Code: AR-15723

May 24 - Nearly 5 years after planning began - and with several destructive blazes since then - a federal judge has cleared the way for a 4,500-acre project to reduce the threat of wildfire, disease and insects on the Deschutes National Forest west of Sisters. But opponents who instead see a bid to log large, old-growth trees have yet to throw in the towel, and they said Monday an appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is possible.

The forest's Sisters Ranger District began planning in January 1999 for the McCache Vegetation Management Project. Last fall, the Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project ( http://rising.olynetwork.com/special/bmbp/) filed suit in federal court, claiming the project failed to protect aquatic habitats, neglected endangered species, ignored cumulative effects and lacked documentation on the effects of the Cache Mountain, Link and B and B Complex wildfires that hit the area in 2002 and 2003.

U.S. District Judge Owen Panner ruled on May 12 in favor of the Forest Service on all allegations, saying the project did not violate federal environmental laws.

"We're obviously pleased with the ruling," Sisters District Ranger Bill Anthony said Monday. "The project was delayed many times by appeals, wildfires and two lawsuits, and we're anxious to implement it."

Panner ruled that the McCache Project complies with the aquatic conservation strategy outlined in the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan. He also noted in his 12-page decision that the project contains few perennial streams, none of which support fish populations deemed significant.

The judge also deferred to the expertise of Forest Service scientists, who concluded the project would result in low susceptibility to sedimentation and changes to water yield. Panner also rejected the plaintiffs' claim that the Forest Service was violating the National Environmental Policy Act, concluding that the agency reasonably considered project alternatives and analyzed them adequately before making a decision to proceed.

"Defendant (the Forest Service) is attempting to correct the unfortunate effects of decades of fire suppression, which have distorted the area's ecology and created a greater danger of truly catastrophic fires," Panner wrote.

The federal judge also ruled that the Forest Service had reasonably concluded there would be no significant cumulative effects from the McCache Project. Panner backed the agency's finding that it was not necessary to prepare a supplement to the original environmental document, based on the agency's assessment of the impacts of the recent major wildfires in the area.

Sisters ranger sees cut in wildfire threat

Anthony said work already has begun, with efforts to restore aspen groves on about 185 acres where fir and pine trees have encroached. The court decision also paves the way for implementation of forest thinning and brush mowing. "The project will not only benefit the forest but will help reduce some of the wildfire threats to Black Butte Ranch, the Tollgate and Crossroads subdivisions, and the Sisters community," Anthony said. "We are thrilled to begin this important work, though it has taken too long to get from planning to action."

Five years ago, district managers identified a 15,000-acre area five miles west of Sisters where thinning and prescribed burning projects could help cut landscape risk, as well as protect and foster development of mature forest habitat for wildlife species.

An environmental assessment was released in March 2001 as officials solicited public comments and developing treatment alternatives. They also provided documents and tours of the area to the Blue Mountains group, which had expressed concerns about the project. The environmental group appealed the October 2001 decision to proceed with project implementation, but the Northwest regional forester denied the appeal. The three major wildfires in the area also delayed implementation, while experts analyzed their impact on the project and its goals.

But Karen Coulter, director of the Blue Mountains group, said Monday that "Judge Panner's decision didn't really tell us much about why he ruled the way he did. He didn't say anything in his decision that would stop us from appealing" to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

"I feel like we have a strong case," she said. "But with the legal system, even if you feel like you have a strong case on the ground, it may not be strong based on precedent or whatever." Coulter said she's working with Susan Jane Brown, an attorney with the Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center ( http://www.lclark.edu/dept/lawadmss/sjbrown.html), who said they have about two months to decide whether to appeal the judge's decision.

Appeal decision based on money, time

"For me, the decision is based on financial circumstances and the availability of a lawyer to take it on in a timely way. The Forest Service is hitting us hard with a lot of sales at once," Coulter said in a phone interview from her home on a mountainside near Fossil with no electricity, much less fax machine or Net-connected computer.

"To me, it's a very strong case - on the ground," Coulter said. "Although there are some sale units with a lot of dead and down (trees) from the spruce budworm, there's a lot of other (units in the project) with green, healthy trees that have nothing wrong with them at all, that are spotted owl habitat."

"The area is extremely fragmented from past clearcutting," Coulter said, and even with the fires that have hit the area in recent years, "they lost all that habitat, and still want to log this habitat. They have admitted there's spotted owl habitat they are going into.-They want to clear out 80 to 90 percent of the mid-story and understory."

She said that during her tour, she saw "lots of huge, old-growth Ponderosa pines" that weren't marked to remain, and was told they'd only done one pass with a wildlife biologist. "I've never seen the Forest Service do marking in two passes," Coulder said.

Coulter said the projects she scrutinizes over several national forests have been designed in a way that makes it appear that environmentalists don't want to reduce fire risk, but that's not the case.
"The most flammable material is about three inches in diameter," she said. "The cutoff point among some scientists is 7-9 inches. After 10 inches in diameter, they don't consider it particularly combustible. The Forest Service plans to log up to at least 21 inches in diameter."

"What I saw of the Cache Fire on the ground, the fire moved pretty fast and hot across Ponderosa pine standards and a lot of clearcuts," she said. "When it hit the mid- to high-elevation mixed conifer, it dropped down to pretty much a prescribed burn," in terms of intensity.

"I don't have a problem with thinning out a lot of thin, spindly stuff that's the flashiest fuel," Coulter said. "But they are using the excuse of fire reduction to log the biggest trees, one of the last old-growth habitats" in the area. "They always toss in the bigger-tree logging -to make the sale marketable, essentially, and because they are under pressure from Congress to turn out some timber volume," she alleged "There's some legitimate fuel reduction, and other is totally not, but under the guise," Coulter said. "Unfortunately, you have to appeal and litigate the whole thing."

But Bend timber consultant Chuck Burley, whose clients include the American Forest Resource Council, said the environmentalists are, as usual, focusing on too narrow a picture, in a bid to achieve their goal of locking up the forests. "The problem with focusing on just one thing, diameters - it's a very myopic view to manage the forest," Burley said. "One of the things you look at trying to do in fuel treatments is canopy treatment. The property west of Black Butte (Ranch) where Cache Mountain burned through, they treated them to the 9-inch diameter limit. The problem is, the crowns were still touching. That's why the fire burned right through, and we lost two homes."

As for Coulter, he said, "She's just hell-bent on no commercial logging. That's her bottom-line issue." He said Coulter has lost her bid to block several fire-salvage timber sales in recent years. "She's taken them to court, asking for a temporary restraining order, and the judges have denied it," Burley said.

Last fall, Coulter's group was one of seven that filed a joint appeal of the 12,600-acre Metolius Basin Forest Management Project, citing much the same issues. Brown, the Portland attorney on the McCache appeal, won a 9th Circuit ruling last December in another legal fight on behalf of the Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project against Forest Service officials in Central Oregon. That appeal challenged the Crane Prairie timber sale on the Ochoco National Forest, alleging the Forest Service failed to consider the cumulative impacts of post-fire salvage logging.

Panner's ruling in favor of the Forest Service on the McCache project included a lot of historic background and "very little analysis from the court on our substantive claims," Brown said. But while the appellants decide whether to appeal to the 9th Circuit, "the Forest Service can advertise and award and begin logging on the timber sale," she added.