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Protecting the environment by providing legal services for forest cases of statewide significance.

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Seattle PI: "Riverside timber cut hits a snag"

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April 16, 2002 -- The Weyerhaeuser Co. and state foresters must reconsider whether they protected enough trees when approving a streamside timber cut on the King-Pierce county line, the state Forest Practices Appeals Board ruled in a potentially pivotal case.

Board orders another look at whether enough trees would be protected

The Weyerhaeuser Co. and state foresters must reconsider whether they protected enough trees when approving a streamside timber cut on the King-Pierce county line, the state Forest Practices Appeals Board ruled in a potentially pivotal case.

The case is the first in which environmentalists challenged the way the state Department of Natural Resources is putting into effect the much-heralded Forests and Fish Agreement, which was supposed to answer criticism of logging's effects on dwindling salmon runs.

In the pact, the state's timber industry agreed to take certain precautions, such as leaving streamside tree buffers to protect rivers where salmon spawn, in order to get a 50-year exemption from Endangered Species Act salmon protections.

A key issue in the case just decided involved how far the Greenwater River is likely to move around in the next 100 years. The more the river is likely to move around -- jump into a different channel during a flood, for example -- the more timber the state and Weyerhaeuser would have to leave standing. Untold thousands of acres in timber-rich river valley bottoms are at stake, lawyers for the Washington Environmental Council and Washington Trout have said.

The appeals board issued a mixed decision Thursday. It said environmentalists failed to prove a central part of their case -- that the DNR and Weyerhaeuser were prepared to allow timber-cutting along the river where the river is prone to move over the next century.

But the appeals board also said the state and timber company failed to take into account a key concept in river restoration and ordered DNR to reconsider the tree-cutting permit the agency issued to Weyerhaeuser.

Both sides claimed victory.

"We're certainly pleased that the Forest Practices Appeals Board approved the way we delineated the channel migration zone," said Frank Mendizabal, a spokesman for Weyerhaeuser. "We're going to fully cooperate with DNR as they look at the issue."

In court pleadings, Weyerhaeuser attorneys had noted that the state law endorsing the Forests and Fish Agreement said "maintenance of a viable forest-products industry" was important. The company, they argued, should be able to delineate the off-limits timberlands "without requiring expensive and time-consuming studies."

However, the appeals board appeared to disagree, saying DNR and Weyerhaeuser did the wrong thing when they failed to bring in experts on river movement before authorizing the 70-acre timber cut.

Environmentalists have challenged the Forests and Fish Agreement on a number of fronts as a political sop to the timber industry that will do too little to protect salmon.

Said Peter Goldman, an attorney for the environmental groups: "We certainly agree with (the appeals board) that DNR needs to take a hard look at where the river is going to go in the future. This is a major ruling, requiring the DNR to look forward."

The case centers on what will happen during the next century or so as provisions of the Forests and Fish deal are carried out. A key part of the strategy is to allow logs to fall into rivers, creating logjams.

Those logjams are important to fish for many reasons. They create large pools where salmon can escape rushing floodwaters. They trap gravel that salmon use for spawning. They create side channels where fish can rest, lay eggs, and feed.

The Forests and Fish Agreement envisions allowing many trees near streams to grow large and then fall in, helping re-establish logjams -- and prime salmon habitat.

What the DNR and Weyerhaeuser failed to take into account, the appeals board said, is that as streams fill up with timber and sediment, the edges of the stream will move out. There is nothing in the state's rules that takes this into account, the board said.

"To the extent that this potential impact on river behavior was not considered, the (off-limits timber) delineation was lacking and the matter should be remanded to DNR for further development and consideration of technical information," the board ruled.

Said Becky Kelley of the Washington Environmental Council: "The fact that they said an important factor wasn't considered and needs to be considered -- that's where we see (something) positive."

But DNR spokesman Todd Myers read the decision differently.

"Essentially the forest practices board is saying, 'This is an issue that we aren't sure about. Double-check it,'" Myers said. "Hopefully, this victory proves that lawyers and lawsuits are not good ways to be stewards of the forests, and the best way to deal with these issues is to work together."