Judge halts logging in spotted owl habitat

A federal judge Friday blocked the U.S. Forest Service from selling burned timber in spotted owl habitat in Oregon until she determines whether the project followed the law.

U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken in Eugene, Ore., granted a temporary restraining order stopping the Deschutes National Forest from offering for sale 190 acres of timber that burned last year in the Black Crater fire outside Sisters.

She will hear arguments July 12 on the lawsuit brought by conservation groups claiming the Forest Service distorted scientific evidence that threatened northern spotted owls use burned forests for habitat and ignored the Northwest Forest Plan's prohibition against logging in old growth forest reserves for purely commercial purposes.

"In this case, the Forest Service distorted the science and made a clear error of judgment in deciding to log the forest as if the habitat had vanished," Jay Lininger, executive director of Cascadia Wildlands Project, said in a statement.

The Northwest Forest Plan was adopted in 1994 to protect old growth forest habitat for the northern spotted owl, salmon and other threatened species while allowing some logging. It designates some areas primarily for logging, and others primarily for fish and wildlife habitat.

The Bush administration has been trying for years to boost timber output under the plan, and has regularly been brought to court by conservation groups over logging after wildfires.

Last year, the Forest Service won a court fight over logging in the area burned by the 2002 Biscuit fire outside Grants Pass, Ore.

But conservation groups were able to win a similar lawsuit that shut down logging on U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands burned the same year by the Timbered Rock fire outside Medford, Ore.

The Forest Service prepared the Black Crater sale under what is known as a categorical exclusion, which allows small projects to go forward without an environmental analysis if they are not expected to cause any environmental damage.

Deschutes National Forest spokeswoman Sue Olson said the Forest Service does not comment on pending litigation.