Trump-era rule change allowing the logging of old-growth forests violates laws, judge says

PENDLETON, Ore. (AP) — A federal judge has found that a Trump-era rule change that allowed for the logging of old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest violates several laws.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew Hallman on Thursday found that the U.S. Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Forest Management Act and the Endangered Species Act when it amended a protection that had been in place since 1994.

The findings came in response to a lawsuit filed by multiple environmental groups over the change.

Hallman recommended that the Forest Service’s environmental assessment and finding of no significant impact should be vacated and that the agency should be required to prepare a full environmental impact statement related to the change.

“The highly uncertain effects of this project, when considered in light of its massive scope and setting, raise substantial questions about whether this project will have a significant effect on the environment,” Hallman wrote.

The Forest Service didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment. The agency has two weeks to object to the judge’s findings and recommendations.

The protection changed by the Trump administration banned the harvesting of trees 21 inches (53 centimeters) or greater in diameter and instead emphasized maintaining a mix of trees, with trees at least 150 years old prioritized for protection and favoring fire-tolerant species.

The area impacted by the rule is at least 7 million acres (2.8 million hectares), approximately the size of the state of Maryland, on six national forests in eastern Oregon and southeast Washington state.

The Trump administration said the change, which went into effect in 2021, would make forests “more resistant and resilient to disturbances like wildfire.”

“We’re looking to create landscapes that withstand and recover more quickly from wildfire, drought and other disturbances,” Ochoco National Forest supervisor Shane Jeffries told Oregon Public Broadcasting at the time. “We’re not looking to take every grand fir and white fir out of the forests.”

The lawsuit, however, said the government’s environmental assessment didn’t adequately address scientific uncertainty surrounding the effectiveness of thinning, especially large trees, for reducing fire risk. The groups said the thinning and logging of large trees can actually increase fire severity.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Pendleton, Oregon, also said overwhelming evidence exists that large trees play a critical role in maintaining biodiversity and mitigating climate change and that eastern Oregon is lacking those trees after “more than a century of high-grade logging.”

Greater Hells Canyon Council, Oregon Wild, Central Oregon LandWatch, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, WildEarth Guardians and the Sierra Club were all plaintiffs in the lawsuit with support from the Nez Perce Tribe.

Rob Klavins, an advocate for Oregon Wild based in the state’s rural Wallowa County, said in a news release that he hopes the Forest Service will take this decision to heart and called on the Biden administration to stop defending the Trump-era rule change.

Earlier this year, President Joe Biden signed an executive order directing federal land managers to identify threats to older trees, such as wildfire and climate change, and develop policies to safeguard them.

As the Forest Service goes “back to the drawing board, we expect them to meaningfully involve all members of the public to create a durable solution,” Klavins said.

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