Conservation groups appeal federal judge's ruling allowing project including three timber sales to go ahead in Blue Mountains of Washington, Oregon; American Forest Resource Council says case could delay harvest of 30 mmbf of timber by more than a year

LEWISTON, Idaho , June 18, 2014 () – Three large timber sales in the Blue Mountains could be in jeopardy or be significantly delayed pending the outcome of the appeal of a lawsuit originally won by the Umatilla National Forest.

A coalition of environmental groups has appealed federal Judge Fred Van Sickle's January ruling that the South George Project does not violate federal environmental laws to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The groups, which include the Lands Council, Hells Canyon Preservation Council and the Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project, are asking the court to put logging on hold until the appeal is resolved. That could delay harvest -- set to begin this summer -- by more than a year, according to officials from the logging industry group American Forest Resource Council.

The South George Project includes three timber sales totaling about 30 million board feet of timber that is forecast to create or support as many as 140 jobs. One sale was purchased by Bennett Lumber Products Inc. and was seen as a key move in the recent reopening of its Guy Bennett Lumber Mill at the Port of Wilma. Another sale was purchased by Idaho Forest Group. The third sale has yet to be offered for bidding.

"If the plaintiffs prevail, it means the harvest is delayed pending the entire result of the appeal and briefing and oral arguments and in the 9th Circuit that can take a year or as long as two years," said Scott Horngren, an attorney for the American Forest Resource Council that, along with the Asotin County Board of Commissioners, entered the suit on the side of the U.S. Forest Service. "From the standpoint of Bennett, they want to be able to supply that mill they restarted and use the wood from that timber sale."

Officials from Bennett Lumber Products did not return phone calls seeking comment on the lawsuit.

The project area, which is popular with elk hunters, berry pickers and campers, includes portions of the South Fork of Asotin Creek and upper George Creek watersheds. It is accessible from Asotin by the Cloverland, Smoothing Iron and West Mountain roads. The Hogback Road runs through the area and the Wickiup Campground sits on the southwest corner.

Forest Service officials contend the area has become too crowded with a mix of tree species and age classes outside of its historic range, is prone to high intensity wildfires and outbreaks of insects and disease. They plan to use logging on 3,900 acres and prescribed fire on 3,000 acres to restore the area to a more natural condition.

The environmental groups allege officials on the Umatilla National Forest violated the National Environmental Policy Act, National Forest Management Act and the Administrative Procedures Act when planning the project. They say the project will fail to provide viable populations for birds that nest in the cavities of dead trees and animals like pine martins and pileated woodpeckers, will harvest trees in sensitive riparian areas and affect roadless areas. The lawsuit also claims forest officials are incorrectly trying to restore the area to a standard associated with dry forests types.

Those allegations were rejected by Van Sickle in January. The groups appealed a few months later and earlier this month asked the judge to issue an injunction pending the outcome of the case. In that request, the groups said they will suffer irreparable harm if the logging is allowed to proceed because stands of trees can't be unlogged.

A decision on the injunction is expected soon.

Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.

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