GRANTS PASS, Ore. - A federal judge has struck down the Bush administration's change to a rule designed to protect the northern spotted owl from logging in national forests.
U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken ruled from Oakland, Calif., on Tuesday that the U.S. Forest Service failed to take a hard look at the environmental impacts of changing the rule to make it easier to cut down forest habitat of species such as the spotted owl and salmon on 193 million acres of national forests.
"I am hopeful that this is the last nail in the coffin to (President George W.) Bush's assault on our public forests," said Pete Frost, an attorney for the Western Environmental Law Center in Eugene, which represented plaintiffs in one of two cases challenging the rule.
At stake was a provision of the National Forest Management Act that required maintaining viable populations of species that indicate the health of an ecosystem, such as the spotted owl. The Bush administration changed the rule last year so it required a framework of protection, rather than maintaining viable populations of wildlife.
The ruling marked the third time federal courts have turned back attempts to change the 1984 version of what is known as the viability rule within the National Forest Management Act.
The judge wrote that an environmental impact statement done by the Forest Service "does not evaluate the environmental impacts of the 2008 rule," and the agency failed to comply with Endangered Species Act requirements to consult with other federal agencies on whether the rule changes would jeopardize the survival of endangered species.
Instead, the Forest Service argued that the rule changes themselves had no direct environmental impact until they were applied to specific projects.
The judge admonished the Forest Service for simply copying legal arguments already rejected in two court rulings into their latest justification for the rule change.
Forest Service spokesman Joe Walsh said in an e-mail that he could not immediately comment on the ruling.
Andy Stahl, director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics in Eugene, said until the National Forest Management Act was enacted in 1976, the Forest Service had wide latitude to do as it pleased with little oversight - a situation the Bush administration hoped to recreate.
After President Bush was elected in 2000, his administration systematically worked to increase national forest logging by changing the rules for enforcing environmental laws, but was consistently turned back by federal court rulings.
"This court decision sends the Forest Service back to square zero and upholds the promise ... that forest plans be meaningful and they actually protect forests," he said.