A federal judge may soon lift the injunction that has halted most logging on the 11 national forests in Arizona and New Mexico this year. Then again, maybe he won't.
Last month the Forest Service tried to
take the matter into its own hands. Southwest Regional Forester
Chip Cartwright issued an ebullient press release July 12
announcing that chain saws would rev up on July 15. Cartwright said
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had approved the agency's
amended forest plans because they no longer jeopardized the
existence of the Mexican spotted owl, a threatened species.
But three days later, after loggers in the
Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest had already cut 64,000 board feet
of timber - about 16 truckloads - Cartwright had to order the chain
saws silent again. The Forest Service had forgotten one essential
detail: The court, not the agency, has the authority to lift an
injunction, and it was Federal Judge Carl Muecke who had ordered
the agency to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service, as
required by the Endangered Species Act.
court is at a loss to understand why defendants would proceed in
this fashion in light of the court's prior order ...," Judge Muecke
said in a July 16 order reinstating the injunction. Muecke said he
wanted to review biological opinions written by the Fish and
Wildlife Service before making his
"What in heaven's name were those
dunderheads at the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service thinking?" bellowed a July 19 Arizona Republic editorial.
Environmentalists also jumped on the agency.
"This is the most egregious thing they've done yet," says Peter
Galvin, a board member of the Southwest Center for Biological
Diversity based in Tucson, one of the
Galvin says the Forest Service and
the Fish and Wildlife Service have resisted efforts to protect the
owl and its forest habitat ever since environmentalists petitioned
to list the species in 1989. Most recently, the regional directors
of both agencies have admitted altering the recovery plan for the
owl after it had already been formally approved. The alteration
allowed some logging in steep-sloped and roadless areas (HCN,
The issue boils down to the region's
oldest trees, which provide important feeding and nesting sites for
the remaining 2,000 or so owls, as well as other species.
Environmentalists say there are so few patches of old-growth forest
left in the Southwest that virtually all should be left
The agency's newly amended plans take a
step in that direction. In future sales on many forests, loggers
won't be allowed to cut trees over 24 inches in diameter, Galvin
says. But forest officials maintain that some old trees need to be
cut, both to make logging economically viable for timber companies
and to improve the condition of the forest.
"Just because it's an old tree doesn't mean it
shouldn't be cut," says Pat Jackson, an appeals and litigation
coordinator in the Forest Service's regional office in Albuquerque.
Cutting only small-diameter trees "is bad forest management," he
says. "We grow 800 million board feet of wood per year in this
region, but right now we're cutting less than 50 mbf. These people
say, "Don't manage it; let it burn up." "
the remaining old trees, which are mostly valuable ponderosa pine,
are within the 239 timber sales that have been stalled since the
injunction was imposed last August. Jackson says Fish and Wildlife
Service biologists assumed that these sales, offered under old
forest plans, would be cut when they approved the Forest Service's
"That's absolutely ludicrous,"
says Mark Hughes, an attorney representing the environmentalists.
"You can't analyze the effects of cutting while assuming the
cutting has already happened." Hughes says the Fish and Wildlife
Service determined that logging under the old forest plans would
jeopardize the spotted owl. "It's a shell game," he says. "The
Forest Service just doesn't want to change."
Galvin says environmentalists don't want to stop
all of the old sales; they want them modified to protect owl
habitat. "When you only have a few old trees left, you can't
sweeten the pot for timber companies by letting them cut those
trees," says Galvin.
Judge Muecke has ordered
several environmental groups and the U.S. Forest Service to present
him with their final legal briefs by Aug. 9
more information, contact the Southwest Regional Office of the
Forest Service at 505/842-3298 or the Southwest Center for
Biological Diversity at
Paul Larmer is
HCN associate editor