Defending Southern Oregon from Unlawful Logging
by Goran Pope | July 21, 2022
Tree from Baby Bear project flagged for logging. Photo Credit Chandra LeGue, Oregon Wild
The Forest Service is misusing an old rule to pursue massive new commercial logging projects that threaten thousands of acres of forest in Southern Oregon.
In three recently approved projects in the Fremont-Winema National Forest, the Forest Service is claiming that commercially logging 29,000 acres of land fits into a category of actions that would have no significant environmental impacts. In fact, they’ve skipped normal environmental review based on an old regulation to bypass the duty to analyze and disclose the effects of these large-scale commercial logging operations. Crag and our clients filed a lawsuit on July 12th, 2022 challenging this misconduct.
In late 2021, the Forest Service approved the massive South Warner commercial logging project which is set to log 16,000 acres of forest. It was joined in May of 2022 by Bear Wallow and Baby Bear, two other projects set to log 10,000 and 3,000 more acres respectively. Together, these projects jeopardize the health of Oregon’s forests.
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires agencies like the Forest Service to assess the likely environmental impacts of projects before authorizing them. Normally, the Forest Service would prepare an Environmental Assessment (EA) or Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to identify the impacts these commercial logging projects would have on the environment. This requirement was included in NEPA to force government agencies to take a “hard look” at the environmental effects of their actions. In addition, the Forest Service must disclose its findings, so that the public can play an active role in the decision-making process.
However, NEPA also includes some exceptions called “categorical exclusions” (CEs). These allow the Forest Service to fast-track certain types of projects that have already been established to have no significant environmental impacts. This way, they can avoid needing to prepare a potentially redundant EA or EIS. The Forest Service used one of these, CE-6, to approve the commercial logging in South Warner, Bear Wallow, and Baby Bear. CE-6 permits small, routine, and low-impact activities like prescribed burning and tree thinning to reduce fire hazards.
But, now, the Forest Service is grossly misusing CE-6 to bypass typical NEPA regulations to justify commercial logging projects of tens of thousands of acres. By using a CE, the agency effectively decided that the question of whether or not these commercial logging projects will have significant environmental impacts is already settled. But the Forest Service never has determined that the impacts of commercial logging projects on wildlife, water, and the human environment would be insignificant. This situation has become another step in the Forest Service’s recent, worrying trend of approving increasingly larger projects with as little transparency as possible.
Crag and our clients are challenging these projects and the way the Forest Service approved them. Crag is representing Oregon Wild and WildEarth Guardians in this fight. Oregon Wild has been defending the state’s wild places, water, and wildlife for decades, and WildEarth Guardians is a New-Mexico based non-profit that protects and restores wildlife throughout the American West. Our goal is to put a stop to the misuse of CE-6 to approve commercial logging projects like South Warner, Bear Wallow, and Baby Bear.
What's at Stake
The Health of Our Forests
Trees are an essential part of our forests’ ecosystem. They provide protection for wildlife, support biodiversity, and help in getting access to clean water. In fact, a single tree can provide a habitat for dozens, sometimes hundreds of different species of animals. Commercial logging operations target the largest trees, which often provide the most benefits for habitat and carbon storage. Also, the process of logging itself requires the construction of roads and the use of heavy machinery which both disrupt natural habitats. This will turn what was once a forest that provides recreation through its scenic beauty into unappealing, heavily logged terrain that has no benefit to the surrounding people.
A Win for Transparency
NEPA’s requirement that the Forest Service study the environmental impacts of their actions and allow the public to view these findings allows for an inclusive decision-making process. Agencies are required to take a “hard look” at the environmental impact of projects, and then solicit feedback in the form of public comment, which lets the public directly voice their concerns. This transparency furthers NEPA’s goal of “democratic decision-making.” Crag and our clients are aiming to strike a win for transparency and inclusive decision-making with this case.
Crag filed this lawsuit on behalf of two non-profit conservation groups:
Goran is a communications intern in the summer of 2022. During his internship he wrote about Crag’s cases and history. Goran Pope will graduate in 2023 from Riverdale High School.