Judge defends Obama expansion of national monument in Oregon

A judge has defended former President Barack Obama's expansion of a national monument in Oregon, ruling against a logging company's lawsuit that said the expansion deprived it of timber.

Environmental groups hailed Tuesday's ruling. The case ironically put the Trump administration in the position of defending Obama's expansion of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, even after Trump's former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended shrinking it.

In the lawsuit against President Donald Trump, lawyers for environmental groups sided with U.S. Justice Department lawyers in fighting the logging company. Two similar lawsuits are being heard in federal court in Washington.

For the Trump administration, the unlikely alliance is all about preserving presidential power. For the environmentalists, it is about protecting the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, which at the stroke of Obama's pen in his final days in office in 2017 nearly doubled in size to more than 150 square miles (390 square kilometers).

Kristen Boyles, attorney with Earthjustice, a San Francisco-based legal group that is one of the defendant-intervenors in the three lawsuits, applauded the decision by U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Clarke.

"Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument is one of America's natural wonders, not a collection of standing logs for a timber company," Boyles said.

Clarke's ruling is not final. He referred his report and recommendation to a U.S. district judge, and said any objections are due within 14 days.

John Murphy, owner of Murphy Co. and Murphy Timber Investments LLC, the Oregon timber concern that brought the lawsuit in federal court in Medford, said it would file an objection.

"I am very disappointed in Judge Clarke's decision," Murphy said in a telephone interview. "We operate five mills, and we need the wood."

Murphy noted that other mills have been shutting down because of lumber scarcity and competition from the Southeast, where much of the timber is grown on private land. In contrast, roughly half of the land in Oregon belongs to the federal government.

In 2000, President Bill Clinton created Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, a unique habitat where three mountain ranges converge, forming a biological corridor for mule deer, gray wolves and spotted owls. It is home to more than 200 bird species, the imperiled Oregon spotted frog, deer, elk and many kinds of fish.

Obama's expansion extended it into Northern California, and onto 62 square miles (161 square kilometers) of land that Congress designated in 1937 for timber harvesting to allow local communities to prosper.

"The land is designated for permanent timber production," Murphy said.

Clarke said Obama did not exceed his authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to expand the monument. The act authorizes a president to set aside federal land as protected national monuments. Timber harvesting is banned in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, except for environmental reasons.

Opponents of the expansion said that because it intrudes on land already reserved for timber production, the president unilaterally disregarded an act of Congress.

But Clarke wrote in his decision that while the main purpose of the 1937 law is for timber production, no court has found that it sets aside federal public land exclusively for timber production or that it invalidates other federal environmental laws.

Meanwhile, Trump has yet to decide Cascade-Siskiyou's fate.

Zinke in August 2017 recommended reductions or other changes at Cascade-Siskiyou and nine other national monuments, but Trump has acted on only two. He cut the size of Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante, both in Utah.

If Trump winds up also shrinking Cascade-Siskiyou, the environmental groups that have lined up with him against the three lawsuits will likely wind up as his adversaries.

"We don't think the president has the power to shrink monuments," Boyles said.


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