The Monongahela Decision

By Dave Saville

In a now famous court decision called “The Monongahela Decision,” Judge Robert E. Maxwell of the United States District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia in Elkins curtailed the authority of the U. S. Forest Service (USFS) to sell timber from National Forests.

In the early 1970s, the Highlands Conservancy was busy seeking Wilderness protection for Dolly Sods, Otter Creek and Cranberry.  One of the reasons was because we were so very concerned about the clearcutting practices on the Monongahela National Forest (MNF).

Beginning in 1967, the Forest Service began making very large clearcuts, some in close proximity to each other.  They were considered by many to be too large, too concentrated and too visible.  Responding to citizen pressure, in February 1970, the West Virginia legislature took action and formed the Forest Management Practices Commission to conduct a study of clearcutting practices on the National Forest lands.  In August 1970, the Commission released its Report including guidelines that would limit clearcuts to 25 acres, provisions for more interdisciplinary input into timber sales decisions, more public involvement, and an agreement that clear cutting would not be the primary logging system.

However, USFS managers on the MNF did not heed this advice.  They continued to emphasize clearcuts and people became more concerned with the impacts they had on the land, as well as the effects they had on wildlife habitat.  The USFS remained “aloof.”  “Trust us,” they said “we’re the experts.”  For West Virginians, where generations of families are fiercely attached to the land, having an outsider like the USFS making drastic changes to “their” landscape was unacceptable.  Clearly, the managers of the MNF lacked sensitivity to what the public thought of the way the new clearcutting policy was implemented.

We began to put pressure on our Congressional delegation.  Under the strong urgings of Senator Jennings Randolph of West Virginia, Hearings were held in 1971 by Senator Frank Church.  In addition to West Virginia, timber management practices in Alaska, Montana, and Wyoming were brought to the attention of Congress making clearcutting a National issue.

Because of the USFS’s continued unresponsiveness to our concerns, the Highlands Conservancy teamed up with the Isaac Walton League to seek recourse through the courts.  The November 1973 ruling stated that the USFS was in violation of the Organic Act of 1897, which stipulated that only “dead, physiologically mature, and large growth” trees that had been marked individually for cutting could be sold.  Judge Maxwell placed a restraining order on timber harvests on the MNF.

The Forest Service appealed, but in August 1975, Maxwell’s decision was upheld by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.  One week later, the Chief of the USFS ordered that timber sales on the nine National Forests in the four states covered by the 4th Circuit Court be stopped.  The Monongahela Decision set a precedent that could be cited in other appellate courts, and therefore posed a threat to timbering on the entire National Forest System.

The court decision effectively stopped clearcutting on the National Forests.  In response, Congress sought new legislation that would provide authority for the Forest Service to manage our forests in an economically, biologically, and socially acceptable manner with strong recognition of the need for environmental protections, appropriate public processes, and limits on agency discretion.

In October 1976 the National Forest Management Act (NFMA) was passed as a direct result of the Monongahela Controversy.  The main objectives of NFMA are to require the U.S. Forest Service to develop management plans for each national forest that would set standards for timber sales, and create policies to regulate timber harvesting.  The legislation places an emphasis on interdisciplinary management of forest resources, as well as including public input as part of the decision-making process.  Together with other important legislative mandates such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), Multiple Use, Sustained Yield Act (MUSY) and the Endangered Species Act, the implementation of the NFMA has sometimes been contentious but it has surely allowed greater public involvement and more concern with biodiversity and less focus on clearcutting.  NFMA guides management of National Forests to this day and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy has continued to play an important role from its establishment and through 40 years of its implementation.