Cascadia Wildlands and Oregon Wild, represented by the Western Environmental Law Center, are the only entities with legal standing to file such a lawsuit because they’re the only parties to have appealed the project back when it was approved in 2010. That’s part of why the residents — who only learned of the project in recent months — are relieved. They had no real recourse to fight the project, which would harvest an estimated 38 million board feet of lumber from federal land in and around McKenzie Bridge.
“Absent a lawsuit, I don’t think we had a chance,” said Edgar Exum, who lives with his wife, Claudette Aras, on property bordering the Forest Service land. “The Forest Service made clear they were not going to be swayed by petitions, websites and local sentiment. This was the last bullet we had. I’m really glad they pulled the trigger.”
Forest Service officials acknowledge they should have done more to notify property owners when the project was first proposed, although they did not comment specifically on the lawsuit, citing agency policy. The Forest Service quickly called a public meeting after a February story in The Register-Guard, but District Ranger Terry Baker told people who attended that their input wasn’t likely to result in any major tweaks to the project. Critics have said the project is unnecessary for fire prevention and targets too much mature forest and too many trees in riparian zones — next to creeks and rivers.
Oregon Wild Conservation and Restoration Coordinator Doug Heiken noted that the Forest Service considered an alternative that focused more on thinning dense young stands, an alternative the conservation groups supported.
“We’re kind of saving the Forest Service from themselves, here,” Heiken said. “They made a mistake, and failed to include the public. We want to get them to do it right.”
Heiken also criticized the agency’s decision to choose an environmental assessment to measure the project’s impacts, rather than the more robust environmental impact statement. But it was the recent outpouring of opposition to the project, Heiken said, including an online signature-gathering effort that has nearly 5,100 names, that propelled the plaintiffs to file the suit.
The complaint itself keys in on two things, said Susan Jane Brown, attorney for the Western Environmental Law Center: a contention that the project could allow barred owls to establish themselves and displace the endangered spotted owl, which projects such as this are legally bound to protect, and how much logging is planned in riparian areas.
She’s hopeful that the suit will conclude before the cutting begins, despite that it’s scheduled to get under way this summer and that two of the five timber sales associated with the project have already begun. Barring that, the plaintiffs will ask for an injunction to halt the project until the lawsuit is resolved.
Not everyone opposes the project. McKenzie Bridge resident Cheryl Russell said she also lives near several areas slated to be cut, and that her husband was a logger in the 1980s, “when they decided the spotted owl was more important than people.”
Russell said the project will keep people employed, and that the opponents are mostly wealthy out-of-towners worried about their vacation and retirement homes, not the welfare of locals. “Just because the trees look pretty is no reason to keep them all the time,” she said. “I wish they’d quit complaining and realize the Forest Service is doing a good job balancing it out. Let them do their job.”