Public recoils from court decision on logging roads


We wrote earlier this month about a recent Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that threw out 35 years of legal precedent and federal environmental policy by claiming for the first time that logging roads should be treated as if they were industrial sites. We also described the legislation that was introduced in Congress to overturn the decision.

Local, state and federal officials have now had a couple weeks to consider the legislation — and the news is not good for the environmental groups that so desperately want logging roads to be treated like textile factories, despite 35 years of state regulatory practices that do a better job of protecting water quality than the federal system.

The New York Times described the reaction as a “political backlash.” Representatives and senators from both sides of the aisle have lined up in favor of the legislation, and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber said his state will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Ninth Circuit decision. The governor said the court’s decision would open up forest owners to lawsuits from environmental groups.

“…(W)e are at a point in the history of our management of forest lands where we need to develop stability, consensus, and collaboration, not management by lawsuit. Dramatically expanding citizen lawsuits risks accelerating the conversion of our forest land to development, costing us both in terms of harvest revenue and environmental values, as well.”

Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Ninth Circuit’s decision would be so widely reviled. The Los Angeles Times pointed out this month that the U.S. Supreme Court “reversed or vacated 19 of the 26 decisions it looked at from the 9th Circuit this judicial term.”

Although the proportion of reversals was relatively in line with past years and other appellate circuits across the country, the 9th Circuit was often out of step even with the high court’s liberal justices, who joined with the conservatives in 12 unanimous rulings.

The Oregonian’s editorial board also came out in favor of overturning the Ninth Circuit decision.

If the ruling stands, it would require tens of thousands of permits for new and existing forest roads, on both public and private lands. And because the Clean Water Act allows citizen lawsuits, virtually every logging project anywhere in Oregon could be challenged. That’s the last thing that the Oregon timber industry needs as it struggles to compete with timber producers in other parts of the country and the world, none of which face this regulation of forest roads.

Why should you care? The Oregon economy still relies on the timber industry, which provides 125,000 direct jobs and tens of thousands of related jobs. Moreover, where private forest owners go, so go Oregon forests. Already owners are resisting forces pushing them to sell their timberland for development. A burdensome new regulation that makes Oregon timber less competitive will cost more private forests.

The reaction from environmental groups to the backlash seems to be schizophrenic — somehow both shocked and resigned.

The bill overturning the Ninth Circuit decision “came like a bolt out of the blue to us,” said Steve Pedery, conservation director for Oregon Wild, to the Oregonian.

But Peter Goldman with the Washington Forest Law Center tried to claim to the New York Times that environmentalists knew all along.

“We knew this was going to happen,” Peter Goldman, one of the lawyers at the Washington Forest Law Center who won the case on behalf of the Northwest Environmental Defense Center, said of the reaction. “We are disappointed but not surprised.”

Well, which one is it? Either way, it’s going to be a long road for environmental groups to prevail now that the public is having its say.