The Karuk Tribe and several local environmental groups won a partial victory against the U.S. Forest Service earlier this week, when a federal judge ruled that the service failed to protect Karuk cultural resources when carrying out a controversial logging plan around Orleans.

Since its inception, the logging plan – an artifact of the Bush-era forest management legislation known as the Healthy Forests Initiative – has been the source of much strife in the neighborhoods around Orleans, which is surrounded by Six Rivers National Forest. Known as the “Orleans Community Fuels Reduction and Forest Health Project,” (OCFR) the plan – spearheaded by Six Rivers National Forest and its supervisor, Tyrone Kelley – envisioned tree thinning on 2,700 acres of national forest land around Orleans.

Shortly after operations on the project began, the Karuk Tribe, along with the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, the Environmental Protection Information Center and the Klamath Forest Alliance, filed suit against the Forest Service and Kelley, as an individual. They charged that work carried out by contractors assigned to the project exceeded the scope of the environmental impact statement the Forest Service had certified in advance of operations, and had furthermore damaged the cultural value of the Panamnik World Renewal Ceremonial District, an important cultural resource of the Karuk and an area that has been determined to be eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.

In a summary judgment ruling issued Monday, Judge William Alsup of the Northern District of California ruled against the plaintiffs on all counts save one: The Forest Service, he said, failed to adequately instruct its contractor about potential impacts to the cutural resources in the Panamnik District. Just a few weeks into the work, the contractor cut and damaged trees along a spiritually significant trail and built log decks unforeseen in the environmental impact report. Though the Forest Service had given some information to the contractor concerning cultural resources, Alsup ruled, it was inadequate and incomplete.

“There are limits … on defendants’ discretion to select methods for communicating the cultural constraints on the Orleans project to those who ultimately perform the project work,” Alsup wrote. “At a minimum, the set of adopted methods – such as contract provisions, information cards, and flagging – must be adequate to communicate to the contractor and its employees what precautions are required. The specific agency acts identified by plaintiffs may be justifiable in isolation, but the initial work done by Timber Products shows that on the whole, the message did not get through.”

In his ruling, Alsup ordered the Forest Service to file a plan to bring the project into compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act by Aug. 1. If the plan is deemed adequate, the project – which has been stalled since the suit was filed – will likely go forward. (Download the complete ruling here.)

The North Coast Journal‘s Heidi Walters has written extensively about the fight between the forest service and the tribe. In June 2007 she wrote a long profile of Kelley, then early in his tenure as Six Rivers forest supervisor, at a time when the struggle against the logging plan was just heating up. Two-and-a-half years later she covered protests against operations on the project, which were spurred by the contractor’s damages to the Panamnik District.