Air Date: Week of September 18, 1998
A group of 22 organizations is calling for a federal judge to halt all logging in national forests until the U.S. Forest Service completes a management plan that was due three years ago. A lawsuit filed in the US District Court in San Francisco alleges that the Forest Service is violating a law that requires it to write such a plan every five years. Forest Service officials cite a legal contradiction. They say a rider Congress tacked on to last year’s appropriations bill prohibits the service from spending any money to prepare such a plan. Steve Curwood asked Dan Rohlf, a law professor at Lewis and Clark University in Portland, Oregon, if this case could shut down logging on federal lands.
CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. A group of 22 organizations is calling for a federal judge to halt all logging in national forests until the US Forest Service completes a management plan due 3 years ago. A lawsuit filed in US District Court in San Francisco alleges that the Forest Service is violating a law that requires it to write such a plan every 5 years. Forest Service officials cite a legal contradiction. They say a rider Congress tacked onto last year's appropriations bill prohibits the Service from spending any money to prepare such a plan. I asked Dan Rohlf, a law professor at Lewis and Clark University in Portland, Oregon, to explain what's at stake in this case.
ROHLF: I don't think that the plaintiffs in this lawsuit ultimately think that this particular legal action is going to be the silver bullet which puts an end to timber harvest on federal land. Even if a court were to go along with the group, and even if the court were to issue an injunction in this case, all the Forest Service would have to do is issue the plan, and then it could resume activities. But I think what this group is trying to do is advance the debate in Congress and in front of the American public as to what the future of our national forests is going to be. And I think, from the plaintiff's perspective in this particular action, they are confident that even the plan issued by the National Forest Service itself will indicate that non-commodity values on national forests are more valuable than the more traditional commodity production, and that therefore that suggests a policy direction of much less or even no commercial timber harvest on national forest lands.
CURWOOD: Now, when you say non-commodity uses, you mean recreation, hiking, the fact that trees keep things from eroding away, that they sequester carbon from the atmosphere; is that what you mean by non-commodity?
ROHLF: Right. There are a variety of those sorts of uses, many of which produce substantial direct or indirect economic revenue.
CURWOOD: Looking down the list of plaintiffs, I see the Native Forest Network, Wild Alabama, Missouri Heartwood, the Buckeye Forest Council. These aren't the big 5 or 8 environmental lobbies you see in Washington. Why are the little groups in the hinterlands doing this?
ROHLF: Yeah, very clearly the plaintiffs in this case are the smaller organizations, more grassroots types of groups characterized as being a little bit more aggressive than some of the larger national groups. I would draw kind of an interesting parallel between this sort of action and the spotted owl controversy of a few years ago, which also has dramatically affected the Forest Service. In that case, the more national groups clearly knew that spotted owls and ancient forests in the Northwest were in trouble, but they were debating politically whether or not it would make sense to try to take an aggressive legal strategy to protect spotted owls. When along came a small, almost tiny group based on the East Coast and filed an initial petition to list spotted owls under the Endangered Species Act, and that sort of galvanized the entire environmental community into action, because at that point the cat was sort of out of the bag. So, but this issue really isn't one that the larger, more national environmental groups have ignored. The Sierra Club, for example, has debated a so-called "zero cut option" for national forests.
CURWOOD: Well that's interesting. I mean, the Sierra Club has pushed a bill or tried to push a bill in Congress to halt logging in the national forests, and that bill has gotten, what, not even out of committee anywhere. Do you think this case will accomplish in court what the Sierra Club and the others have tried to do, lobbying on Capitol Hill?
ROHLF: I think this case is simply going to be an element in the larger debate. If you look across the country, and I've seen this many, many times, perhaps even the majority of the American public equates national forests and national parks, when in fact from a management perspective they're vastly different. I think it might come as a surprise to many people in the United States that commodity production such as timber harvest and grazing are actually a very prominent and important part of managing national forests. And I think part of the overall debate, and certainly part of what the plaintiffs in this case are trying to advance through this litigation, is to educate people about those issues. And I think that ultimately will allow us to have a better-informed debate about what the future of those resources should be.
CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with us today. Dan Rohlf is a professor at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon.
ROHLF: Thank you very much.
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