GRANTS PASS, Ore. – A federal appeals court on Friday overturned a 2013 ruling that ordered the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to sell more timber in southern Oregon.
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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit also overturned a ruling in the same case that had annulled a system federal scientists used to estimate the harm to northern spotted owls, a threatened species, from logging projects.
The appeals court found that timber companies and organizations demanding more timber under a 1937 law known as the O&C Act had no standing to sue because they failed to show evidence they suffered harm from reduced logging levels. The appeals court did not address the issue of whether the O&C Act directs the Bureau of Land Management to run its timberlands in western Oregon primarily for timber production.
The ruling was another setback for efforts by the timber industry to reverse deep cutbacks in logging on federal lands in the Northwest the past two decades to protect habitat for the spotted owl and salmon.
"The appellate court today threw out an unprecedented, unworkable, and backward decision that could have forced the Bureau of Land Management to violate its duties to manage these lands for water, air, wildlife and people, not just clear-cuts," Earthjustice attorney Kristen Boyles, who represented environmental groups intervening on the side of federal agency, said in a statement.
Ann Forest Burns, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, said she expected the timber industry group would likely go back to district court and file the lawsuit all over again, this time with better proof that lumber mills had suffered harm from the lack of logs. She noted that since the district court ruling in 2013, one of the mills, Rough & Ready Lumber in O'Brien, had closed for lack of logs. The mill has reopened and is operating again.
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In 2013, U.S. District Court Judge Richard J. Leon ruled the Bureau of Land Management had failed to consistently offer as much timber as called for in its 1995 resource management plans for the Medford and Roseburg districts since 2004. He also found that the computer model used to estimate how many spotted owls live within an area to be logged was adopted without input from the public.
The O&C lands are a patchwork of one-mile squares that were once deeded by the federal government to the Oregon & California Railroad to pay for the construction of a rail line. After the railroad went broke, the lands reverted to the government, and they are now managed by bureau. They are unique among federal timberlands in that half the revenues go to the counties where they are located.
During the logging boom of the 1970s, some county governments got so much money from O&C payments that they didn't charge property taxes. They are now suffering financially because voters won't increase taxes to make up for declining O&C payments.