Federal Judge Halts Timber Cut in Sensitive Area Near Ely, Minn.

A federal judge has put the brakes on a Superior National Forest timber sale near Ely, Minn., saying further environmental review is needed before any trees can be cut.

Jan. 18—A federal judge has put the brakes on a Superior National Forest timber sale near Ely, Minn., saying further environmental review is needed before any trees can be cut.

Judge Michael Davis said the U.S. Forest Service can't sell trees to loggers in the Big Grass area along the Echo Trail until after a full Environmental Impact Statement is conducted.

Davis said the Forest Service needs to look at the cumulative impacts of logging across state, federal, county and private land in the area. He also called for more analysis of the timber sale's impact on the adjacent Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota.

Further, Davis said the Forest Service must take a closer look at how logging along the Echo Trail might affect the aesthetic quality of the area for tourists and others who recreate in the area.

"The forest Service's lack of analysis regarding the cumulative impacts of the project and ongoing harvesting activities demonstrate that an EIS is necessary," Davis wrote in his decision, filed on Friday in Federal District Court in Minneapolis.

Referring to the Echo Trail, he added that the area is "used heavily year-round by recreational visitors, contains one of the most frequently traveled roads in the forest and provides visitors to the forest with a unique wilderness experience."

Joshua Davis, spokesman for the Sierra Club, which filed the lawsuit, said the decision validates claims that the overall pace of logging in that area is a critical issue.

The judge is sending the Forest Service "back to do their home work right," the Sierra Club's Davis said. "He's saying it's important that they look beyond just their own land and consider all the other logging going on up here."

The Sierra Club claimed, and the judge agreed, that the Forest Service failed to take a "hard look" at the problems logging would cause, including illegal ATV use on "closed" logging roads and loss of the wilderness experience that people expect when they go camping, fishing or canoeing.

Superior National Forest officials could not be reached Monday, a national holiday, for comment.

Minnesota Forest Industries, a trade group that intervened in the case siding with the Forest Service, has not decided whether or not to appeal the decision, said Wayne Brandt, executive vice president.

But Brandt said the judge's order simply adds to the already considerable paperwork being conducted by Forest Service staff before every timber sale. Loggers say the environmental review process is slowing down their access to trees and contributing to already high prices they have to pay to cut them.

He said the environmental review file for the Big Grass timber area is "already the size of the Minneapolis telephone book."

"We're disappointed that the judge wants the Forest Service to do even more paperwork," Brandt said. "We believe the Forest Service's time is better spent managing the forest than producing more paperwork."

The Big Grass area included about 12.6 million board feet of timber to be logged on about 1,500 acres in coming years. The Forest Service first proposed the logging plan in 2001. The lawsuit was filed in 2003 after negotiations failed to reach an amicable agreement.

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© 2005, Duluth News-Tribune, Minn. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.