A federal court ruled late Friday that the Bush administration acted illegally by suppressing scientific dissent in order to weaken protections for salmon and clean water from logging on Pacific Northwest federal forests. The ruling came in a case brought by fishing and conservation groups seeking to restore environmental protections primarily from logging and road building projects on steep, landslide-prone hillsides. The environmental safeguards, known as the Aquatic Conservation Strategy, were developed in 1994 as part of the Northwest Forest Plan.
Leading scientists developed the ACS to protect salmon and clean water by requiring that logging, road building, mining, and other habitat degrading activities would be constrained or tailored to protect watersheds. Logging in steep watersheds causes dirt to slump or wash off into creeks and streams, burying gravel beds needed for salmon spawning. The Aquatic Conservation Strategy was created to minimize this damage.
"The Bush administration tried to bend the rules to provide more timber from national forests that are home to some of our last salmon streams," said Earthjustice attorney Patti Goldman. "Leading scientists who designed the watershed protections warned that eliminating them would harm clean water and salmon streams. The Bush administration suppressed their scientific input in order to allow more destructive clearcut logging on our Northwest forests."
When the Bush administration changed the rules, they checked in with the scientists who originally developed the safeguards in 1994. Many of the scientists told the Bush administration point blank that doing so would cause environmental damage. The Bush administration chose to ignore this scientific input and instead claimed that the changes had scientific support. The court used stern language, ruling that not only were the critical statements not disclosed, "they were misrepresented". The court found that the Bush administration's "statement as to the intent of the drafters of the Northwest Forest Plan is contrary to the opinions that were actually expressed by the FEMAT [Forest Ecosystem Management Assessment Team] scientists in response to the questionnaire."
The court further ruled that the, "… scientists, who designed the ACS, expressed dissenting opinions and disagreement concerning potential negative cumulative effects of the ACS amendment. The FEMAT scientists are respected scientists and their views relevant. Furthermore, they were not alone in expressing dissent. FWS [US Fish and Wildlife Service] scientists submitted comments that the proposed language would 'remove or weaken several key conservation provisions for aquatic species at the plan level' and eliminate the 'assurance that projects developed and implemented under the ACS guidance will contribute to restoring and/or maintaining the ecological health of aquatic ecosystems.' The FWS scientists further stated that 'this outcome is of great concern to us.'"
"A fundamental concept of the Aquatic Conservation Strategy was that watersheds should be managed to support salmon and clean water. The Bush administration amendment allowed projects to go forward regardless of their cumulative effect on the watersheds to the detriment of salmon, water quality, and fishing-dependent communities," according to Dr. Jack Williams, a former agency scientist and currently chief scientist for Trout Unlimited. "The court ruling recognizes this fallacy and restores scientific integrity to the process."
The Aquatic Conservation Strategy came under attack when the timber industry urged the Bush administration to triple the cut from our national forests by eliminating ACS safeguards and other environmental protections for Northwest forests.
"Maintaining these very modest protections against the impacts of federal timber operations will help with long-term salmon recovery," said Glen Spain of Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, one of the plaintiffs in the suit. "What the court essentially said is that salmon science should prevail over timber industry driven politics."
Earthjustice represented the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources, Oregon Wild , Pacific Rivers Council, The Wilderness Society, Umpqua Watersheds, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, Siskiyou Regional Educational Project, Conservation Northwest , Klamath Forest Alliance, and National Center for Conservation Science and Policy.