The decisions would allow commercial logging in most restricted area of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, in violation of Scenic Area law and Gorge Management Plan.
Friends of the Columbia Gorge recently appealed decisions by the U.S. Forest Service and the Washington Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) that allow the logging of one-million board feet of timber (roughly equivalent to 250 logging trucks) within one of the most highly protected areas in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.
The Forest Service and WDNR decisions both approve a commercial logging project proposed by Synergy Resources LLC within a Gorge Special Management Area near Major Creek in Klickitat County. Friends appealed the Forest Service decision in federal court on February 12 and appealed the WDNR decision to the Washington Pollution Control Hearings Board on March 3.
Proposed logging project in Gorge's most protected area
In the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, there are six basic land use designations which are administered more forcefully in the Special Management Areas due to the high incidence of scenic, cultural, recreation, and natural resources. Special Management Area Open Space is the most restrictive of all the Scenic Area’s land use designations and is vital to protecting key areas of the Gorge with sensitive resources. Commercial logging is prohibited on lands designated as Open Space.
Despite the highly-protected nature of the land, the proposed logging project would use an environmentally destructive practice, known as high-lead logging, which would drag logs using elevated cables along hillsides within sensitive, Gorge wildlife habitat.
Among key species impacted could be western gray squirrel habitat, currently listed as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need under the Washington State Wildlife Action Plan and a Priority Species under the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's Priority Habitat and Species Program. According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, "Priority Species require protective measures for their survival due to their population status, sensitivity to habitat alteration, and/or recreational, commercial, or tribal importance."
No scrutiny by agencies of commercial logging project
"If this logging project is allowed to go forward, a dangerous precedent would be set, nothing in the Gorge would be safe," said Friends Conservation Director Michael Lang. "Name any iconic place in the Gorge; if it has merchantable tree species, it could be logged under this interpretation of the National Scenic Area Act. Friends seeks to ensure sensitive areas in the Gorge are free from commercial logging as Congress intended," Lang stressed.
The decisions sidestep the issue of whether the activity is a commercial forest practice, which is prohibited in Special Management Area Open Space-designated lands. The suit also notes that the Forest Service did not require the completion of key wildlife species field surveys before approving the logging project. These actions violate Scenic Area law and, if not reversed, would undermine decades of safeguards developed to protect Scenic Area natural resources and allow destructive, commercial logging in one of the Gorge's most ecologically sensitive places.
"The Gorge Management Plan is clear: on lands designated Special Management Area Open Space, commercial logging is expressly prohibited," Friends Senior Staff Attorney Nathan Baker stated. "Despite that prohibition, the Forest Service and Washington Department of Natural Resources never bothered to scrutinize this project to determine whether it is, in fact, a commercial logging project,” Baker added. “Private logging companies should not be given free passes by government agencies to commercially log the Gorge’s most sensitive locations, like what happened here.”
General background information
The Columbia River Gorge is a place of unparalleled natural beauty with diverse wildlife, endangered salmon runs, five major ecosystems, 800 species of flowering plants, and rich cultural traditions. The National Scenic Area Act—the federal law that protects the bistate region—charged the U.S. Forest Service to protect and enhance federal lands and created the Columbia River Gorge Commission to protect and enhance the nonfederal lands in the 292,000 acres within the Scenic Area. In addition, the Washington Department of Natural Resources is required by its own rules to comply with the Gorge Management Plan.
The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Management Plan requires these agencies to satisfy a number of procedural and substantive requirements during the process of determining whether a project is consistent with the National Scenic Area Act. One of these requirements includes field surveys for certain wildlife species within the project area, and identifying or verifying the sensitive wildlife areas and sites as well as delineating mandated buffers.
In its review document for the project, the Forest Service acknowledges the project area is within potential habitat for western gray squirrels and northern spotted owls and also admits the Management Plan requires a wildlife field survey once potentially sensitive wildlife are identified, yet effectively waives or ignores the guideline. The Washington Department of Natural Resources similarly approved the logging apparently without first requiring that all field surveys be completed.