OUR state’s timber industry is not the same business that many of us grew up with. Washington’s annual timber harvest is 44 percent lower than it was in the early ’90s.
Our timber companies are national leaders in transforming woody biomass into renewable energy. And in an age of climate change, forest owners are helping protect millions of acres from development by keeping working forests sustainable and economically viable.
Unfortunately, a U.S. Supreme Court battle is threatening the industry’s economic vitality. At question are tens of thousands of miles of logging roads across the West, including 57,000 miles of roads in Washington alone.
A 2010 decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reclassified the logging roads as “point sources” of water pollution, requiring federal permits for rainwater runoff usually applied to factories or sewage plants.
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In the months after the decision, Congress and the U.S. Solicitor General said they disagreed with the ruling, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it would create new rules for rainwater runoff but that it would continue to regulate logging roads with state-managed forest-practice regulations like the Forests and Fish Law.
The most important news, though, came this summer: The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the 9th Circuit decision.
With the high court set to weigh in, it may be premature for the EPA to change its rules without knowing the far-reaching legal implications.
If the Supreme Court upholds the 9th Circuit decision, then federal permits would be required for every stream, culvert and fish passage on every active logging road in the West. This would leave landowners vulnerable and allow activist groups to legally contest every permit for no real environmental gain.
If the high court overturns the appeals-court decision, it will affirm that protecting clean water through state forest-practice rules is better than duplicative federal permits. Forest owners will have the long-term economic and legal certainty they need to keep their land safe from development.
While I was Washington’s lands commissioner, we forged the collaborative Timber-Fish-Wildlife agreement in 1987. Forest owners should be happy that the Supreme Court will provide them with answers on how logging roads should be regulated, but the issue never should have been litigated in the first place.
The cooperative approach has produced real environmental benefits in Washington. Even through the worst housing crisis in our nation’s history, the state’s forest owners have remained committed to protecting water quality and fish habitat. Since the state’s Forests and Fish Law was approved a decade ago, large forest landowners have improved 18,700 miles of logging roads and opened 4,700 passages for fish and 2,600 miles of fish habitat. Last year was especially productive, with the opening of 1,000 fish passages and restoration of 900 miles of fish habitat.
The state regulations work, something the EPA, Congress and the solicitor general recognize. Some members of Congress agree. U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Vancouver, and Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., support the EPA’s goal of keeping logging roads from being reclassified as point sources of water pollution.
Now Washington forest owners need a final push from the Supreme Court to continue their success in environmental stewardship.
Brian J. Boyle was Washington’s commissioner of public lands from 1981-1993 and works with the University of Washington School of Environmental and Forest Sciences as leader of the Northwest Environmental Forum (www.nwenvironmentalforum.org)