In a ruling that may potentially shut down commercial logging operations on as much as one-quarter of all National Forest lands, a federal district court judge in Illinois has slapped the USDA Forest Service with an injunction to immediately cancel all timber sales that used a loophole in the law to avoid environmental review and public participation processes.
The injunction, handed down Oct. 1, is reportedly the first time a federal judge has issued a ruling affecting the Forest Service’s entire commercial timber sales program.
“Nobody knows, including the Forest Service, exactly how many acres are affected by this ruling,” says Andy Mahler, director of Heartwood, a regional forest protection network based in Indiana that brought the lawsuit. However, Mahler estimates that at least 110,000 acres of public land will be immediately affected. As a comparison, the Forest Service’s commercial timber program logged a total of about 447,000 acres in 1997, says Mahler.
Dan Castillo, assistant director of timber for the Forest Service’s Region One headquarters in Missoula, confirmed that his office has yet to determine just how deep this injunction will cut into their commercial logging program, but said that many of their smaller timber operations will be immediately affected.
“It’s enormous. The implications of this are huge,” says Matthew Koehler of the Missoula-based Native Forest Network. As Koehler explains, the Forest Service is usually required to prepare environmental assessments or environmental impact statements before making public lands available for commercial logging.
However, since 1992, the Forest Service has been taking advantage of so-called “categorical exclusions,” or pre-approved exceptions to the rule, which have effectively allowed the Forest Service to skirt federal laws that require environmental evaluations of the impact of that logging, as well as public participation and input.
“The Court believes that the continued application of this unlawful categorical exclusion does pose a potential danger both to the environment and to public health,” the court ruling reads.
Interestingly, the Heartwood lawsuit, brought back in September 1998, was filed only two days before the statute of limitations ran out on legal challenges to those rules. As a result, last week’s injunction only affects timber sales issued since last September.
Not surprisingly, a survey conducted last February by the USDA’s own inspector general of 12 federal timber projects found that the Forest Service frequently fails to assess, prevent or correct environmental damage on national forest lands. All 12 projects in that survey were found to be deficient, with the inspector adding, “immediate corrective action is needed.”