A federal appeals court has upheld a lower court ruling halting salvage logging on about 960 acres burned by the 2002 Timbered Rock fire in the Elk Creek drainage near Trail.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a lower court ruling halting salvage logging on about 960 acres burned by the 2002 Timbered Rock fire in the Elk Creek drainage near Trail.

In a 2-1 ruling released Tuesday, the judges in San Francisco agreed with U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken that the Medford District of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management violated its own rules and federal law when it decided to cut some 23.4 million board feet of timber in the burned area.

"This is a pretty resounding rebuke for the BLM and the Bush administration," said George Sexton, conservation director for the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, one of five environmental groups that sued the federal government to halt the logging.

"It's a huge win," he added. "This focuses the spotlight on pattern and practice of political decisions made by the Bush administration, implemented by the BLM, to evade or eviscerate any environmental laws that would get in the way of cutting old-growth timber."

Aiken issued a permanent injunction late in 2004 to halt the salvage logging on BLM land from the nearly 27,000-acre lightning-caused fire. She agreed with environmental groups that had asserted the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan requires late-successional reserves be set aside to preserve habitat for old-growth species, such as salmon and spotted owls. She also concluded the agency did not factor into its plan the impact of new roads and salvage logging on adjacent 6,000 acres of private land.

Like Aiken, the majority of the panel determined that BLM's timber harvest violated its own management plans as well as its own mandate to preserve old-growth forest ecosystems under the 1994 forest plan. The judges also agreed that the agency had violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it failed to adequately analyze the cumulative environmental damage from constructing 33 miles of fire line and dropping 40,000 gallons of chemical retardant on the area to put out the fire.

BLM officials declined to comment, noting they had not yet reviewed the ruling.

But attorney Scott W. Horngren, who represented timber industry interveners in the case, told the Associated Press that a different U.S. District Court judge and a different three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit had upheld a very similar plan by the U.S. Forest Service for salvage logging on the 2002 Biscuit fire.

"They are second-guessing agency actions and rolling up their sleeves and, as the dissent says, becoming the foresters," Horngren said of the appeals court.

He was referring to the dissenting opinion written by Judge Diarmuid F. O'Scannlain, who wrote the court was substituting its own "best vision" for forest management, ignoring the professional expertise of the federal agency.

When local BLM officials announced the plan, they noted that salvage was planned for about 8 percent of its burned land, and about 95 percent of all trees, both dead and green, would be left. Supporters argued the salvage would provide enough timber to build 1,500 moderately-size homes and bring $20 million to the local economy.

The environmental community said the salvage would cause more harm than good.

"We feel like we're fighting as hard as we can for the viable future of wild salmon and steelhead," Sexton said.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail: pfattig@mailtribune.com

The Associated Press contributed to this report.