Ninth Circuit Stops Old-Growth Clearcutting In Oregon Forest To Protect ESA-Listed Marbled Murrelets

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last week affirmed a lower court ruling that prevents Scott Timber from clearcutting old growth trees within Oregon’s Elliott State Forest. The decision will protect marbled murrelets, which are a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

The court found that the proposed logging of the 355-acre Benson Ridge parcel by the subsidiary of Roseburg Forest Products would violate the ESA. The case marks the first time a private timber company has been held to account in court for potential violations of the Act in Oregon, said conservation groups.

“After a decade of advocacy, the rare old growth in Benson Ridge is at last protected from private industry chainsaws,” said Nick Cady, legal director at Cascadia Wildlands. “This ruling is significant for the imperiled marbled murrelet and will hopefully dissuade land managers from logging the little remaining coastal old-growth forest in the state.”

The 82,000-acre Elliott State Forest, located near Coos Bay, has been mired in controversy for over a decade. Following a 2012 decision by the state of Oregon to significantly increase logging levels in the forest, Cascadia Wildlands, the Center for Biological Diversity and Bird Alliance of Oregon (formerly Portland Audubon) sued the state for illegally logging occupied marbled murrelet habitat on the Elliott and other state forests. After a judge issued a legal injunction, the state settled the suit in 2014 and agreed to drop 26 timber sales and stop logging in occupied murrelet habitat.

Following the settlement, however, the state sold the Benson Ridge parcel and two other tracts, totaling 1,453 acres, even though the parcels contained mature and old growth forests that were occupied by imperiled marbled murrelets. Before the sales were finalized the timber purchasers were specifically warned by the three conservation organizations that logging these forests would violate the ESA.

“I’m absolutely thrilled that the marbled murrelets of Benson Ridge are safe from logging,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This court victory makes it clear that timber companies are no more exempt from ending the extinction crisis that plagues these enduring seabirds than the rest of us.”

The Benson Ridge case, originally filed in August 2016, claimed violations of the ESA, which strictly prohibits harming, harassing or killing threatened species like the marbled murrelet. Unlike any other seabird, murrelets nest on the wide, mossy branches of large, old growth trees, making a daily trip of up to 35 miles inland to bring fish to their young.

“This entire Elliott State Forest saga demonstrates the incredible cynicism that underpins the treatment of mature and old growth forests in Oregon,” said Quinn Read, conservation director for Bird Alliance of Oregon. “Land managers, both public and private, continue to try to convert these rare old forests into timber plantations. This is not only ecologically devastating but illegal.”

In its ruling, the 9th Circuit affirmed that logging would wipe out 49 acres of forest where marbled murrelets live, along with their nests, and prevent them from returning.

In addition to winning the Benson Ridge case, the organizations won a previous lawsuit that challenged the other Elliott privatization efforts.

“This case exemplifies the vital importance of citizen suits in our fight to save the planet. The state of Oregon knew the marbled murrelet used this land, but sold it anyways to be clearcut. The federal government knew the marbled murrelet used the Benson Ridge tract for nesting and reproduction, yet took no action to stop Scott Timber Company’s logging plans. Only through the decades-long effort of these public interest organizations was this land and its nesting marbled murrelets protected — in perpetuity — from devastation. Moving forward, timber companies should pay close attention to the existence of marbled murrelets on their property, as we certainly will be,” said Daniel Synder of Public Justice.

In recent years, a diverse set of stakeholders has successfully worked to “decouple” the Elliott State Forest from the Common School Fund through a series of legislative appropriations and transition it into the Elliott State Research Forest. There is no longer an obligation to clearcut the forest to fund public schools in Oregon, and the forest will now be managed with an emphasis on older forest conservation and research.

The conservation organizations were represented by Daniel Kruse of Kruse & Saint Marie LLC, Daniel Snyder of Public Justice, Nick Cady of Cascadia Wildlands, and Brian Segee of the Center for Biological Diversity.

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