Judge topples small timber sales

 

HOTCHKISS, Colo. - Allen Todd has been in the timber business on Colorado's Western Slope for about a quarter of a century, and his small but tidy custom sawmill outside the town of Hotchkiss reflects his years of experience. Looking like oversized games of Jenga, neat towers of square timbers, which will soon reinforce shafts in some of the area's coal mines, dot the 3 acre yard. Pyramids of dead-cut spruce lie waiting for one of Todd's six employees to hand-peel the bark, transforming them into decorative beams that will supply home builders here and in the nearby resort town of Crested Butte.

Todd processes only about 1.5 to 2 million board-feet of timber a year, enough to build about 125 homes. He isn't planning on growing much bigger, because he thinks small is sustainable. He's been able to keep his employees and offer them benefits, unlike larger mills where, he says, turnover is high and working conditions are often poor.

And unlike "the big outfits that don't care if they screw the logger because there's always one coming in right behind him," Todd says he's built lasting relationships with his suppliers. Eighty percent of the timber in his yard comes from small Forest Service sales of dead and bug-infested timber, harvested mostly by mom-and-pop operations and horse loggers. Todd says small size has been his strength - until a few weeks ago.

That's when an injunction handed down by a federal judge in an Illinois district court stopped 141 smaller Forest Service timber sales across the country, including sales that Todd was counting on. The ruling left loggers in Colorado and across the West without the timber they'd already purchased from the Forest Service, and it took Todd and his suppliers by surprise.

"I've been dealing with customers, saying that I had so many logs coming in," Todd says, "and just like the guys out there cutting, we've been left hung out to dry."

Unprecedented ruling

The ruling that blindsided Todd is a victory for some environmentalists, who want more Forest Service activities subjected to environmental analysis. Heartwood, the Indiana-based forest advocacy group that filed the lawsuit in Illinois, says the Forest Service misuses a provision of the regulations, called a categorical exclusion, to authorize smaller timber sales without environmental assessments.

Heartwood director Andy Mahler says a categorical exclusion was originally meant to eliminate paperwork on projects such as cutting the grass at ranger stations and clearing debris from trails. Then it grew into a huge agency loophole.

"We've been finding an increasing number of large-volume and, we believe, destructive sales that have been approved by categorical exclusions," Mahler says. "The opportunities for public review (in these cases) are extremely limited. There's no question in our minds that (it) was meant to circumvent the National Environmental Policy Act."

Heartwood challenged a 1992 change to the exclusion rule, which increased the size of timber sales authorized under the exclusion by tenfold. The rule originally allowed categorical exclusions for sales up to 100,000 board-feet. The 1992 change permitted sales of up to 250,000 board-feet of live timber and 1 million board-feet of dead logs without doing a formal environmental analysis or an official public appeals process.

Environmental groups around the West can give examples of abuses of the exclusion. It doesn't take long for Kim Davitt of the Montana-based American Wildlands to think of two: a thinning sale in occupied grizzly habitat in Targhee National Forest and a sale in a Bridger-Teton National Forest roadless area.

"The Forest Service says they do a categorical exclusion when they don't think there's going to be an impact," Davitt says. "How do we determine where there's been an impact unless we do an environmental assessment?"

U.S. District Judge J. Phil Gilbert agreed: "The court finds that the Forest Service did not provide any rationale for why this magnitude of timber sale would not have significant effect on the environment," Gilbert wrote in the Sept. 28 ruling. His blanket injunction stopped every sale approved under the rule since the suit was filed over a year ago.

Forest Service still deciding

The Forest Service estimates that the injunction halted the harvest of about 26 million board-feet of timber, about 1 percent of the 3.3 billion board-feet that the agency sells annually on 110,000 acres of land. But the effects haven't been equally distributed across the timber industry.

Categorical exclusion sales are often the only way smaller loggers get access to public timber, and many of them say their cuts are more environmentally friendly than industrial-scale operations. Some of the halted sales may have been destructive, says Gunnison, Colo., logger Dave Goodrich, but most helped rural loggers and the Forest Service as well. Goodrich says he buys about 75 percent of his timber through categorical exclusion sales - and much is wood the agency wants off the forest for management purposes.

"In the Gunnison area," he says, "the primary objective of these categorical exclusion sales is not so much to sell timber. It has to do with (improving) forest health."

If the agency decides small sales aren't worth costly environmental assessments, Goodrich says he'll be out of luck.

"I can't get into the big sales," he says. "They sell those through a bidding process, and I can't go in and bid against Louisiana-Pacific."

The Forest Service hasn't decided what to do about the halted sales. Dick Dieckman, a forester with the regional office in Lakewood, Colo., says the agency will not appeal the decision but will act to get the sales back on track.

"We're going to have to do something different to make sales right. I don't know if we're going to have to write environmental analyses or not," he says. Right now, he's waiting for direction from higher-ups in Washington before he takes any action.

Chris Wood, assistant to Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck, says the agency as a whole needs to work on how it treats small operators.

"If the only way for small loggers to stay afloat is through categorical exclusions," says Wood, "that speaks to a larger problem we have with the way we move timber off the public lands. We ought to redesign the process to meet the needs of the small logger, rather than looking for special ways around the process."

"We're built to service large operations," he adds. "We don't do well servicing small mills and small operators."

Todd and Goodrich wonder if the small loggers can stay afloat until the agency comes up with a solution. Goodrich was ready to start work on a Forest Service sale when he got a call from the district ranger, informing him of the injunction. Suddenly, Goodrich was out of work, and three weeks later, not much has changed. "A guy's got to work," Goodrich says, "and I'm afraid I'm going to lose my crew."

Ali Macalady is an HCN intern.

You can contact ...

* Heartwood, 812/337-8898;

* Forest Service Region 2 office, 303/275-5005.

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