The 9th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals has wisely allowed work to continue on the A to Z timber sale in the Colville National Forest, an innovative effort to preserve jobs in Colville and Usk while improving forest health.
The ruling was significant because the same court has recently halted timber cutting in several Western Montana forests, including one sale east of Libby reservoir that had earlier passed judicial review.
All, including A to Z, had been challenged by the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, which alleges the U.S. Forest Service has not fully complied with environmental laws. There’s also concern that agency outsourcing of environmental reviews could lead to sales of public land.
But collaboration may be the best way to head off those who want the feds out of the forests.
The Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition, which includes representatives from the timber industry, local government and environmental groups, had worked on the A to Z plan for more than a decade. Colville Forest officials retained the power to oversee or stop the project.
A to Z provided for independent, third-party preparation of required environmental studies. That work was paid for by Vaagen Brothers Lumber Co., which got the right to recoup its $1 million investment with proceeds from the sale of lumber harvested where environmentally safe and commercially viable.
Many of the 50,000 acres within the Mill Creek watershed encompassed by the A to Z sale had been logged off in the 1920s, and have since become dangerously overgrown.
For the Forest Service, the A to Z sale and others like it could help remediate millions of acres of forest stressed by drought and insects. Colville forest officials, like many others around the West, could only hold their breath this year as dry conditions again made regional forests vulnerable to devastating fires like those that swept across Washington in 2014 and 2015.
Last month’s 7-plus inches of rain took care of this fire season. And with the onset of winter, there was no need for the kind of emergency intervention the alliance was seeking in the courts.
The U.S. District Court that first refused to halt the A to Z sale clearly recognized its virtue:
“The public interest weighs strongly against entering a preliminary injunction that would halt a collaborative effort designed to help the environment and to aid a local economy.”
If anything, obstructive lawsuits like those filed by the alliance are going to feed the argument that the government cannot manage its real estate, so it should be transferred to the states. Or, alternatively, environmental standards should be lowered so loggers can get back into the woods.
A Trump administration will certainly give those arguments a much more sympathetic hearing than the Obama administration has.
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