Alanna Mayham

(CN) — An Oregon magistrate judge issued a recommendation on Friday that could omit commercial timber sales from a federal fire resilience and forest restoration plan in southern Oregon.

The findings and recommendations from U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Clarke largely favored conservation groups who sued the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for approving large-scale commercial logging, thinning and prescribed burning in forested habitats occupied by northern spotted owls.

On Apr. 10, 2023, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center led three other conservation groups in suing the bureau for approving its project without the environmental impact statement that is typically required by the National Environmental Policy Act.

“The BLM failed to demonstrate that the IVM project and the associated timber sales and logging activities, including but not limited to Late Mungers, promotes and maintains [northern spotted owl] habitat, including foraging habitat and habitat for prey species,” Klamath-Siskiyou wrote in its complaint.

The groups claimed that the bureau failed to demonstrate how its decisions around the project were consistent with a 2016 resource management plan that, among other things, directs the bureau to apply logging treatments within 381,158 acres of late-successional reserves without precluding or delaying the development of northern spotted owl nesting or roosting by 20 years or more.

Following an early April hearing for summary judgment, Clarke's Friday order summarized the bureau's reasoning for dismissing the 20-year standard in the 2016 management plan: Because the project’s treatments promote resilience to fire, drought, insects and pathogens — not the speedy development of owl habitat — the 20-year standard does not apply.

“The court cannot accept this interpretation,” Clarke wrote, explaining that the 20-year standard “clearly applies to any proposed actions in the LSRs, irrespective of BLM's stated purpose” and that the agency’s determination of compliance was arbitrary and capricious.

The bureau's modeling, Clarke added, cannot be rationally supported.

“The sheer results of the modeling exhibited that the treated stands could not return to the minimum threshold levels for canopy cover and basal area that is required for functional habitat even after 50 years,” Clarke wrote.

As explained by a subsequent lawsuit filed by Applegate Siskiyou Alliance last August, the bureau approved up to 17,000 acres of commercial logging in these protected areas per decade while allowing harvesting of mature and old-growth trees up to 173 years old.

Overall, Clark recommended summary judgment for Klamath-Siskiyou — but not the Applegate Siskiyou — for its claim under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. He recommended judgment in favor of all conservation groups regarding their claims under the National Environmental Policy Act.

The Late Mungers Project is the first site-specific, commercial implementation of the project that includes two timber sales. It authorizes 830 acres of commercial thinning of late-successional reserves — or habitat containing northern spotted owls — and 7,534 acres of small-diameter thinning and prescribed burns.

“The forests of southwest Oregon are fire-adapted ecosystems,” the bureau wrote when approving the “Integrated Vegetation Management for Resilient Land Program” in April 2023. The agency explained that fire exclusion and other land management activities have placed Oregon forests “in dire need of proactive management to increase their ability to respond to impending threats of fire, drought and disease.”

The bureau also claimed the project would promote and retain larger tree growth while promising actions to improve the development of habitats for sensitive wildlife and plant species, including the northern spotted owl.

Clarke also noted that the plaintiffs are seeking different remedies: Klamath-Siskiyou seeks to prevent the commercial logging components of the project, while Applegate Siskiyou wants to vacate the entirety of the bureau's decision records for the project.

“The court agrees the parties should be allowed an opportunity to confer as to the appropriate relief in light of this court's specific findings,” Clarke wrote. "Plaintiffs acknowledge that BLM's plans include proactive and admirable strategies directed across many high-risk areas.”

In the meantime, Clarke wrote that he strongly suggests the parties collaborate to push the noncontroversial parts of the project forward without significant delay.

“The relief requested is being held in abeyance pending further briefing,” Clarke wrote. “Should the district court adopt this findings and recommendation, the parties are directed to confer and submit their proposed remedy briefs to the court within 30 days of the adopting order.”

The order will now go to a federal judge in Medford for a final decision.