For 35 years the federal Clean Water Act had properly governed the use of forest roads. That is, until the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals coughed up a bizarre ruling in 2011. A three-judge panel for the San Francisco court ruled that water runoff from forest roads must be regulated the same as runoff from factories, industrial parking lots and even sewage treatment plants. That meant forestland owners and logging companies would have to go through the lengthy and costly process of obtaining pollution discharge permits.Northwest politicians — Republicans and Democrats alike — understandably responded with outrage.
Fortunately, this contentious issue was set back upon its logical path Wednesday by the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court ruling. Forest roads will be managed as "non-point sources," as they were for three-plus decades under the Clean Water Act.
It's important to understand the breadth of opposition to the 9th Circuit Court's misguided ruling two years ago. As we pointed out in an editorial last year, 45 House Republicans, 17 House Democrats and President Barack Obama had supported the traditional forest roads regulations.
Among those were a Republican congresswoman from Camas, Jaime Herrera Beutler, and a Democratic congressman from Oregon, Kurt Schrader. Both had led the timber industry's cause as it advanced to the highest court in the land. And now both are vowing to pass legislation that will leave no doubt about governing runoff on forest roads. Herrera Beutler said last week in a written statement: "Until we've put clear protections into law, forest roads are still susceptible to job-killing federal regulations that simply aren't necessary to protect our forests and waterways."
Schrader added: "The next step in the process is for Congress to affirm (Wednesday's) ruling with legislation … to provide that certainty for our state and local governments as well as our private forest landowners."
The urgency driving their shared quest for formal legislation is well founded. Conservation groups have said they will continue pushing for federal authorities to more closely regulate muddy logging roads. One lawsuit filed by the Northwest Environmental Defense Center claims water running on logging roads pollutes salmon streams. But that doesn't square with research that had guided 35 years of federal policy.
Last year, Herrera Beutler said the 9th Circuit Court's ruling would cost forest and related industries in the Northwest up to $883 million per year. Timber industries provide 110,300 jobs in Washington state and pump $4.9 billion annually into the national economy. And if the Supreme Court hadn't reversed the lower court, 10 years would be needed to process 400,000 permits that would've been needed on public lands, with a similar regulatory burden confronting private landowners.
This dispute isn't over. But at least the Supreme Court has returned some common sense to the debate.