PORTLAND — The U.S. Forest Service was recently joined by a timber company in defending the necessity of a 11,700-acre Oregon thinning project that environmentalists are seeking to block.
The agency refuted claims that its environmental assessment of the Crystal Clear restoration project in the Mt. Hood National Forest was insufficiently thorough during April 19 oral arguments in Portland before U.S. District Chief Judge Michael Mosman.
Science has shown that thinning is a proven technique for helping trees better withstand insects, disease and wildfire, said Shaun Pettigrew, attorney for the government.
"If you reduce competition, there will be more access to the sunlight, more access to water, more access to the soil," he said.
Expert analysis conducted by the Forest Service concluded the project area will continue to serve the life cycle needs of the threatened northern spotted owl, Pettigrew said.
Tree removal won't directly impact any owls, since the government has only identified areas the birds may use in the future, he said.
"There are no actual spotted owls occupying these nest sites," he said.
The Forest Service consulted on the project with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which determined that thinning won't jeopardize the spotted owl, Pettigrew said.
"Even within the project, the effects are not significant," he said.
Four environmental groups — Bark, Cascade Wildlands, Oregon Wild and Wildearth Guardians — teamed up earlier this year to file a complaint alleging the thinning project will harm wildlife by logging in old growth forests and building new roads.
The plaintiffs are now asking the judge to overturn the Forest Service’s authorization of the project and prohibit any logging or road-building until the agency complies with the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Forest Management Act.
Commercial logging in the forest is “highly controversial” and will have “uncertain environmental effects,” which warrants conducting a more exhaustive “environmental impact statement” of the proposal, the plaintiffs claim.
The need to cut trees from mature forest stands to reduce fire risk is scientifically disputed, as are the impacts on the threatened northern spotted owl, said Brenna Bell, attorney for the environmental groups.
"They essentially say this controversy doesn't exist, but it does," she said. "Saying it's not controversial doesn't make it so."
Owl habitat would be adversely affected by the project due to lost forest canopy cover on which the species depends, the plaintiffs claim.
Thinning is uncontroversial for tree plantations but isn't considered uniformly beneficial to all forest types, such as the mature stands of up to 330 years old included in the project, Bell said.
It may take 75 to 100 years for the project area to regain its function as spotted owl habitat, she said. "That's a loss of habitat now for a hypothetical benefit in the future."
The fact that spotted owls weren't occupying nest sites in a survey of the area isn't necessarily consequential, as habitat must be preserved to help them withstand competition from barred owls, Bell said.
"Owls move throughout the landscape," she said.
The government’s arguments that thinning in the national forest is necessary were buttressed by High Cascade Inc., which holds a contract to implement part of the project and has intervened in the lawsuit.
The effects of thinning are well understood by the Forest Service and in line with recovery plans for the spotted owl, said Sara Ghafouri, attorney for High Cascade.
"Just because this is in non-plantation doesn't necessarily trigger controversy," she said.
High Cascade intends to begin harvesting trees from the project area in June, with the entire project expected to take three years, Ghafouri said.
Mosman, the judge, said he'd have a "bare bones" decision as early as next week, though additional arguments may be necessary if an injunction is justified.