Salvage logging can continue on portions of the Blue Mountains burned in the 2005 School fire, but a federal appeals court ruled Monday that no large, living trees may be cut.
Environmentalists sued last year to stop logging on about 9,000 acres of charred Umatilla National Forest. A federal court denied their petition, which was then appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeals court upheld most of the ruling, except for the portion on logging large trees.
The School fire burned about 52,000 acres and 215 buildings in southeast Washington in August 2005. Federal and state officials have since been trying to log the charred timber, but environmentalists believe the logging further damages the forest.
The lawsuit was filed by the Lands Council of Spokane, as well as the Oregon Natural Resources Council, the Sierra Club and Hells Canyon Preservation Council.
The U.S. Forest Service included in its salvage timber sales large-diameter trees that were damaged by the fire but not necessarily dead. The agency believes these trees are expected to die and could be cut, despite internal prohibitions against cutting old growth, according to court documents. The appeals court sided with environmental groups in stopping the cutting of old trees. Even if the trees are dying, the appeals court wrote, the trees are not yet dead, thus no tree “with green needles shall be harvested.”
The court did not, however, stop logging in two roadless areas that were burned. This issue is expected to be addressed later in the spring in arguments before U.S. District Judge Lonny Suko.
Mike Petersen, executive director of the Lands Council, said he was pleased by the ruling. Large, old trees have a good chance of recovering from heat damage, even if they shows signs of damage, he said.