PORTLAND, OREGON--A U.S. federal appeals court in San Francisco halted a series of timber sales on 31 May, citing faulty science. The court chastised the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the agency charged with protecting endangered Northwest salmon and cutthroat trout, for basing their approval of timber sales on how they would affect water quality in an entire watershed rather than on specific streams in which salmon spawn.
The case arose as an outgrowth of the Northwest Forest Plan, a 1994 deal that allows logging on federal lands but reduces some of the industry's destructive practices. The plan limits logging close to streams, which can clog waterways with eroded soil and damage fish runs. Under the plan, the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management authorized 23 timber sales around the Umpqua River in southwestern Oregon with the NMFS stamp of approval. But environmental and conservation groups objected that the agency diluted the logging's potential negative impact.
The court agreed, ruling that the NMFS erred by focusing on watershed systems rather than individual streams. It also faulted the agency's decision to assess damage starting 10 years after the trees would be cut, when replanted saplings would be helping to prevent erosion. During that interval, three generations of fish would migrate out to sea and return to spawn. "This generous time frame ignores the life cycle and migration of fish," the court ruled. The ruling also puts on hold another 170 timber sales throughout the Northwest and Northern California until NMFS biologists can come up with a more focused scheme for evaluating the effects of logging on stream health.
"It's a tremendous victory for the fish," says Patty Goldman, a lawyer with the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, who represented the fishermen and environmentalists that brought the suit. Brian Gorman, a NMFS spokesperson, says that agency biologists may have to conduct a separate full-scale evaluation of each proposed timber sale, which could significantly slow logging on federally owned land in the region.