In a bruising loss for environmentalists, a federal appeals court Wednesday overturned an injunction protecting some Oregon habitat of the rare northern spotted owl, ruling that such protection requires a full trial.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals order was based on a 1987 federal law carried for the timber industry by Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.) that limits challenges of virgin timber sales by the federal Bureau of Land Management.
Environmentalists attacked the law behind the ruling as a "travesty" that encourages government agencies to sell public resources regardless of problems caused for wildlife, recreation and the environment.
Rick Bailey of the Northwest Forest Resource Council said the ruling boosts industry claims that environmentalists won lawsuits on technicalities that have hurt timber-dependent towns throughout the Pacific Northwest.
In a 22-page order authored by Chief Judge Alfred T. Goodwin, a three-judge panel unanimously found that a 1987 congressional appropriations rider legally forbids anyone from challenging authorized federal timber sales with claims of new information about impact on wildlife.
Bailey said the court order is unlikely to immediately result in additional logging because it will take time to select sale areas, accept bids and choose a buyer. After that, logging roads will have to be built into the sale areas.
The BLM still must accommodate spotted owls, he added. But instead of a blanket ban on logging in all potential owl habitat--a ban that tied up 500 million board feet of standing timber--logging now is restricted only in areas where either the BLM or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service know owls exist.
The significance of the order goes well beyond the BLM forest land directly affected. Bailey said loggers will use this ruling to fight an injunction that is tying up timber sales in vastly larger national forests in Oregon and Washington.
Vic Sher, a Seattle lawyer for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, said the precedent will not apply in the Forest Service suit, but he still decried the law behind the ruling as "irresponsible and dangerous."
"It interjected a back-door process into national forest management," he said. "It removes the laws that govern the conduct of federal agencies. That is not how our government is supposed to work."
The timing of the ruling is interesting because a renewed, expanded version of the same legal restrictions is scheduled for debate before a congressional conference committee Sept. 11. A particularly bitter fight is expected.
Coincidentally, the court ruling was handed down as Earth First! protesters demonstrated in six states against Hatfield's proposal. Protesters invaded the senator's Salem, Ore., office and placed a cardboard owl in a tree outside his Portland office.
Activity in California was limited to pickets at a Santa Cruz post office.
At issue are thousands of acres of valuable, publicly owned virgin, or old-growth, trees in California, Oregon and Washington. These forests are believed by scientists to be the last remnants of habitat for the northern spotted owl.
Plans to cut the forests have been challenged in lawsuits against the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. The two suits seek to protect the owl from extinction and preserve the unique qualities of wild forests.
Temporary injunctions stopped much logging after judges in both cases found that the conservationists' case would be moot if the trees were cut before the suit was heard. Loggers said the injunctions threatened to put them out of work.