Viability of U.S. timber industry threatened by legal decision


Sometimes what may seem like a narrow court case can have far-ranging consequences. A recent decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, originally made last year and affirmed in May, would threaten the viability of the timber industry in the West if allowed to stand.

The decision upended 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 textile factories or industrial parking lots. In fact, if the decision is allowed to take effect, each drainage pipe or stormwater ditch on logging roads across the West would be treated as if it were a factory or coal-burning plant.

The Ninth Circuit decision would also throw out the highly effective set of state practices, called Best Management Practices, that states use to regulate stormwater runoff on timber land. These state practices take into account the natural conditions of each state, as well as the health of entire fisheries and watersheds.

On the other hand, the federal system endorsed by the Ninth Circuit would impose a unilateral and less effective set of regulations focused entirely on discharge permits and institute arbitrary rules on even the tiniest source of stormwater runoff without regard to the health of the whole ecosystem.

Fortunately, there is some hope on the horizon. Legislation was introduced in Congress this week that would overturn the Ninth Circuit decision. The National Alliance of Forest Owners (NAFO) and U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA), one of the bill’s sponsors, both issued press releases in support.

From David Tenny, President and CEO of NAFO:

“If the legislation isn’t enacted, the Ninth Circuit decision will add job-killing costs and invite litigation to rural areas hardest hit by the economic downturn without corresponding environmental benefit. Overlaying a (Clean Water Act) permit requirement onto forestry activities will push more private forests into non-forest uses with greater impacts on water quality. The resulting loss of jobs and forests undermines the goal of preserving working landscapes that support rural families, wildlife habitat, clean water and recreation opportunities across the country.

From Rep. Herrera Beutler’s release:

In Washington state, forest land owners must already comply with the Forests and Fish law, widely considered one of the toughest environmental protection laws in the nation.

The (new federal) legislation was applauded by small business, labor, and employers throughout the forest product and forest product-related industries. Private forest lands in Washington state are responsible for more than 110,300 jobs and provide $4.9 billion to the nation’s economy.

…“Working farms and forests are an important part of our environment and economy, providing jobs, especially in rural communities,” said Mark Doumit, Executive Director of the Washington Forest Protection Association. “Requiring an additional federally mandated permit that adds cost and confusion, without marked environmental benefit, on top of our state system that is working to protect water quality makes no sense.”

Make sure to contact your U.S. representatives and senators to encourage them to support this critical legislation.