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Seattle Times: "Owl ruling halts logging on 56,000 acres of private land"

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August 2, 2007 - A federal judge Wednesday temporarily blocked Weyerhaeuser from cutting trees on its own land in southwest Washington, saying state logging rules weren't doing enough to protect threatened spotted owls.

A federal judge Wednesday temporarily blocked Weyerhaeuser from cutting trees on its own land in southwest Washington, saying state logging rules weren't doing enough to protect threatened spotted owls.

The injunction appears to be the first time a judge has stopped timber harvesting on private forest land in Washington because of the tiny, skittish owls, which have declined sharply across the Northwest since being protected by the Endangered Species Act in 1990.

The ruling effectively bans Weyerhaeuser from cutting trees on up to 56,000 acres in four areas between Olympia and Portland, though a spokesman said the company actually had planned to log only a small portion of those lands.

The decision stems from a lawsuit filed by Seattle Audubon Society and the Washington Forest Law Center, an environmental firm. The groups had complained for years that the state was allowing timber companies to log forested areas deemed crucial to the owls' survival.

U.S. District Court Judge Marsha J. Pechman did not agree to the groups' request that the state stop issuing logging permits anywhere in the state in areas considered important for owls.

But, said Peter Goldman, director of the law center, "this opinion issues a very stern warning to the state. The state should not draw comfort from this."

Weyerhaeuser spokesman Frank Mendizabal said the company was disappointed by the judge's decision.

"I think the implication is that somehow we're not doing enough to protect threatened and endangered species," he said. "That's just not true. We follow the rules and exceed many of them."

At issue, however, is whether the rules are adequate.

In the early 1990s, the federal government halted logging on millions of acres of federal land in Washington, Oregon and California, because spotted owls need vast stretches of undisturbed old-growth forests to roam and feed their young.

But on private land — regulated by the state — biologists keep sporadic track of hundreds of sites where spotted owls were thought to nest, and the state allows logging on roughly half of them.

In the last decade, the number of owls in Washington has declined nearly 7 percent a year — in part because the bigger, more aggressive barred owl expanded its range in Washington and began driving out its threatened cousin. Environmentalists complained that logging on private land was compounding the problem.

After failing to persuade the state to tighten its rules, the two groups in November sued the state and Weyerhaeuser, which had planned to do more logging in southwest Washington. The day the suit was filed, Weyerhaeuser withdrew its initial logging plans; it then entered an agreement with the federal government to do research on both owls, combined with some logging.

Judge Pechman, in her ruling Wednesday, wrote that such plans were still "reasonably likely to harm spotted owls." She halted all logging until the lawsuit concludes.

"We think we'll prevail in the end," said Mendizabal, of Weyerhaeuser.

But Shawn Cantrell, director of Seattle Audubon, said, "We hope in the meantime the state will sit down and reconsider how it deals with owls on private land."

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company