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December 26, 2012
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Editorial: Supreme Court mulls roadblock to timber harvests

The U.S. Supreme Court has a choice: Uphold a long-standing and sensible rule, or make timber harvests more expensive and more time-consuming without a corresponding benefit.

The decision, presumably, will be made when the justices decide Decker v. Northwest Environmental Defense Center.

Environmental groups argue that every culvert, pipe and ditch that discharges storm water from logging roads into rivers should have a federal permit to comply with the Clean Water Act.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. The Oregon Department of Forestry and timber companies, including the Swanson Group of Glendale, appealed to the Supreme Court.

The conservationists are acting on the premise that states, particularly Oregon, aren’t doing enough to protect water quality.

The conservationists want storm-water runoff from logging roads to be regulated like the effluent from factories.

A brief filed by conservationists stresses the mechanized nature of modern logging. Forget romanticized images of “brawny lumberjacks of yesteryear” wielding axes or “even chain saws,” the conservationists advise the justices.

The brief makes logging sound like an office job. “Massive equipment, with humans safely ensconced in climate-controlled environments, handles everything from cutting to hauling.”

Conservationists argue the heavy equipment used on logging roads leaves “chemical residue” and “pulverized rock and sand from the ground-up road surface.”

All that stuff washes away and muddies streams, smothers fish eggs and buries the insects fish eat, according to the conservationists.

This is not a pretty picture, and not a complete one. States are responsible for preventing these undesirable consequences. It’s unclear whether the federal permits would actually do more and result in cleaner water.

The Environmental Protection Agency decided 36 years ago that states were better equipped to write water-protection rules to fit their climate and terrain.

Time hasn’t changed the EPA’s thinking. Two days before the Dec. 3 oral arguments in Decker v. Northwest Environmental Defense Center, the EPA issued a “new rule” affirming its old practice of not regulating logging roads.

Part of EPA’s unwillingness to regulate logging roads is that it would be too administratively difficult, if not impossible.

Consider that Douglas County alone maintains about 200 miles of logging roads. Public Works Director Robb Paul estimates there’s a culvert approximately every mile and that obtaining a federal permit would cost as much as $5,000 apiece.

The scenario repeats itself in county after county, state after state, private timberland after private timberland owner. The Association of Oregon Counties estimates obtaining permits would cost $56 million in Oregon alone.

Even more troubling is the potential that obtaining permits would take so long that timbers harvests would be delayed or even cancelled.

Well, troubling to some. Heartening to others.

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The News-Review Updated Dec 26, 2012 02:00PM Published Jan 6, 2013 08:54AM Copyright 2013 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.