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Editorial: Spare those trees

A judge rightly holds the Forest Service to a deal

Wednesday, August 18, 1999

Ninety percent of the old-growth forest west of the Cascade mountains in Washington, Oregon and California is gone. After a protracted battle early in the decade followed by a compromise forged by the Clinton administration, safeguards were instituted for the remaining 10 percent.

Now a federal judge, the same man who saved the spotted owl, is holding the government's feet to the fire, actually requiring it to live by the terms of the agreement. Bravo.

Under that pact, about one-third of the remaining tracts of old-growth forest are still open for logging, pending a determination by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management that the ecosystem will not be threatened. The detailed analysis requires a complete survey of 77 species of rare plants and wildlife, to make sure that they can survive the cutting.

The Forest Service, which despite new leadership is a bureaucracy that sees its first responsibility as helping the timber industry, has had trouble completing the task and so tried to sidestep the requirement. Rather than finishing the needed surveys, it conducted environmental reviews that found there would be no significant threat if the cutting took place before the surveys were done.

U.S. District Judge William Dwyer was not amused. "The plan's requirement that surveys be conducted cannot be dropped simply by the issuance of memoranda concluding that field surveys are not needed," he wrote.

So he halted nine already approved timber sales, amounting to 100 million board feet, and scores of other plans also may be in jeopardy. Judge Dwyer, who reviewed and approved the forest plan, said that the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management broke the law by approving timber sales without the required surveys. That action, he said, is "arbitrary and capricious."

There's no question that the survey is costly and difficult. Many of the species being examined are small and hard to track, but are nonetheless critical to the entire interdependent web.

"We're talking about 77 species that scientists thought were rare or about which little was known, but that were thought to be critical to the functioning of the ecosystem," said Mike Axline of the Western Environmental Law Center. "Losing one of those species would be like pulling the bottom card out of a house of cards. By itself it might not seem significant, but it plays an important role in supporting the entire ecosystem."

The terms of the forest agreement make sense. They don't stop making sense just because they are difficult or costly to implement. Judge Dwyer got it right, again. Now it's time for the stewards of the public land to do their job.

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