In a victory for a Northern California timber firm, a Humboldt County judge ruled last week that a state water panel did not have authority to impose additional regulations on the Pacific Lumber Co.
At issue was whether the North Coast Water Quality Control Board was within state law when it ordered Pacific Lumber to monitor how a planned harvest of 720 acres of redwood trees would affect water quality in the Elk River.
Logging sometimes leads to erosion that clogs streams with sediment, causing floods and damage to salmon habitat.
The harvest in question was to be on land adjacent to the Headwaters Forest, a grove of ancient redwoods that the state and federal government purchased from Pacific Lumber in 1999.
In a decision not disclosed until Thursday, Superior Court Judge J. Michael Brown found that the water panel should have deferred to the state agency that regulates the timber industry -- the California Department of Forestry.
Although the case applied to just this one logging plan, the ruling spoke to a larger issue: whether the state's Clean Water Act can be used to control timber harvests.
In recent years, the North Coast water board has become increasingly frustrated with the Forestry Department.
Reports by the water board staff have implied that the department was not adequately protecting several streams that flowed from the timber company's land.
As a result, the water board used the Clean Water Act to justify a series of orders or proposals to either increase monitoring by Pacific Lumber or, in some cases, to slow the cutting of trees.
"In our view, this is a very significant decision," said Jim Branham, a spokesman for Pacific Lumber. "The Forestry Department is the lead agency for regulating timber harvest in the state."
The water board, he went on, has a part to play but cannot take on a regulatory function.
Nicholas Stern, a state deputy attorney general, said Thursday that his office is considering an appeal. Such a move would take the matter out of local court in Humboldt County -- where Pacific Lumber owns more than 200,000 acres and is a major employer -- and send it to the 1st District Court of Appeal in San Francisco.
In a related issue, Pacific Lumber announced Thursday that it would stop logging in two areas on its land in the Freshwater Creek drainage as a gesture of good faith.
The water board was on the verge of going to court to stop the timber harvest because Pacific Lumber had yet to receive necessary permits.