The Bush administration acted illegally in weakening protections for salmon and clean water from logging on federal forests, Magistrate Judge Mary Alice Theiler ruled in a decision issued yesterday.
When the timber industry urged the Bush administration to triple the cut from our national forests by eliminating environmental safeguards, the administration entered into sweetheart settlements agreeing to each of the industry’s proposed rollbacks. The Aquatic Conservation Strategy (ACS) of the Northwest Forest Plan was one of the casualties of the industry deals.
Logging in steep watersheds causes dirt to slump into creeks and streams, burying gravel beds needed for spawning. The Aquatic Conservation Strategy was created to minimize the damage.
“The administration defied both the science and the law in weakening stream protections to increase logging in our public forests,” said Patti Goldman of Earthjustice, who represented the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed in April 2004. “This decision sends a strong message that it’s time to reinstate protections for salmon and clean water.”
Leading scientists developed the ACS to protect salmon and clean water by requiring that logging, roadbuilding, mining, and other habitat degrading activities would be constrained or tailored to protect functioning watersheds.
In March 2004, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management eliminated this requirement. All activities may now proceed, no matter how egregious, as long as streamside buffers are in place.
The judge faulted the federal agencies for not “supplying a reasoned analysis in changing their course” and for relying on a discretionary process without addressing “the potential impact posed by projects proceeding without application of that discretionary process.” She also ruled that the agencies had failed to satisfy “their burden to ‘make certain'” that logging would not jeopardize the survival of endangered salmon by “adopting a wholesale deferral of analysis to the project level” noting that such a “deferral . . . necessarily improperly curtails the discussion of cumulative effects.”
Eliminating the focus on cumulative effects and overall watershed health deviates from the intent of the scientists who created the ACS and allows habit degradation to go unchecked for decades — well past the point of irreparable damage.
“A fundamental concept of the Aquatic Conservation Strategy was that watersheds should be managed to achieve their potential 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 scientists who designed the strategy intended that the agencies would find that logging would not contribute to harmful cumulative degradation of aquatic conditions,” said Dr. Robert Ziemer, one of the architects of the 1994 strategy. He feared that “degradation of aquatic habitat could go undetected under the Bush plan until after the harm to streams has been done.”
“This ruling could not have come at a better time, with salmon runs collapsing in the Klamath for lack of federal protection, and the fishing industry facing economic ruin. Maintaining these very modest protections against the impacts of federal timber operations, including in the Klamath Basin, 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 magistrate essentially said is that salmon science should prevail over timber industry driven politics.”
In the coming weeks, a federal district judge will decide whether to adopt or make changes to the magistrate’s decision.
Plaintiffs in the case are: Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources, Oregon Natural Resources Council, Pacific Rivers Council, The Wilderness Society, Umpqua Watersheds, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, Siskiyou Regional Educational Project, Conservation Northwest, Klamath Forest Alliance, and Headwaters.