Forestry decision: A day late and a dollar short?

    After what one party termed “an obscenely long” period of time, the courts are nearing resolution on one of the key forestry battles of recent years: The question of which set of management rules, the 2001 Sierra Nevada Framework or the 2004 Framework, should govern the 11 national forest throughout the mountain range.
    The Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment was approved in 2001, during the Clinton administration. Because its rules did not allow for full implementation of the Herger-Feinstein Quincy Library Group pilot project, it was “supplemented” in 2004, during the Bush years. The supplemented rules became known as the 2004 Framework.  
    Sierra Forest Legacy, the California state attorney general and California Forestry Association filed four lawsuits in 2005 challenging the 2004 rules. The Sierra Forest Legacy lawsuit included a challenge to the Basin, Slapjack and Empire projects on the Plumas National Forest.
    Sierra Forest Legacy asked for a preliminary injunction on the three Plumas projects in September 2007. A month later, the District Court for the Eastern District of California denied the motion. Sierra Forest Legacy then appealed the decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
    The appellate court reversed the decision in May 2008 and sent the case back to the district court with instructions to grant the preliminary injunction immediately on the three proposed projects.
    District Court Judge Morrison England issued a memorandum and order on the framework in August 2008, finding in favor of the Forest Service on all claims except for one: failure to consider reasonable alternatives to the 2004 Framework as required under national environmental law.
    Thirteen months later, England reset the hearing date on remedy for Oct. 1, 2009. He also stayed all logging projects named by SFL in its renewed motion for injunction. England ruled from the bench Oct. 1, and followed up with his formal ruling Nov. 3.
    The ruling releases all the challenged projects. England took a don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater approach: Just because there were a few “relatively minor” procedural problems with the 2004 Framework, that didn’t mean the whole thing should be tossed out, as SFL and other plaintiffs requested. Instead, the Forest Service needs to address the deficiencies in a supplemental environmental analysis. For future fuels reduction projects, the agency must consider non-commercial funding alternatives.
    While the plaintiffs could still appeal, again, to the Ninth Circuit, which has been a friendly venue for them, there’s a feeling shared by several of the players that the decision on the
Framework has come too late in some ways. The lumber market has tanked. Sierra Pacific Industries has closed its small-log mill in Quincy, which was equipped to handle the smaller-diameter trees expected to materialize under the QLG program.
    Perhaps more significantly, forestry issues have evolved to consider global warming and carbon sequestration. These will likely be the new battlefield—a few cases are starting to appear that challenge agencies’ analysis of the greenhouse effects of forestry projects.
    And finally, parties on both sides of the Framework fight are increasingly talking about “ecosystem services,” placing value on the clean air and water, habitat and recreation provided by forests.
    Will this shift in discourse be enough to bring the parties together? We hope so. Because another round of litigation won’t move us in the direction we need to go: toward a restoration economy funded by “downstream” users and beneficiaries of our ecosystem services.


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