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Judge: Army wrong to allow logging at Cypress Lake without permit
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    SAVANNAH — A federal ruling that the Army Corps of Engineers wrongly waived a permit for logging on a private lake has clarified an exemption in pollution laws and could lead to better wetland protection, an environmental group said Monday.
    The Southern Environmental Law Center sued in 2006 over the Corps’ decision that owners of Cypress Lake didn’t need a logging permit to cut down cypress, swamp blackgum and water tupelo trees growing on 60 acres of the manmade lake near Statesboro.
    The Ogeechee-Canoochee Riverkeeper, the plaintiff in the lawsuit, argued harvesting trees from the lake would destroy habitat used by wood storks, beavers and indigo snakes and harm the lake’s wetland functions such as filtering pollutants and absorbing floodwaters.
    The federal Clean Water Act requires a permit for logging and other actions that could pollute wetlands. But the Corps argued the lake’s owners didn’t need one because of an exemption in the law for ‘‘ongoing’’ tree farming, also called silviculture.
    U.S. District Judge B. Avant Edenfield ruled May 27 the Corps failed to show there had been logging on the site in the past, or assurances the trees would grow back to allow harvesting in the future. Therefore, he ruled, it couldn’t be classified as ongoing tree farming.
    ‘‘The statute’s been around for about 40 years now, and this was one of those little things that hadn’t been interpreted very well,’’ said Brian Gist, a staff attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center in Atlanta. ‘‘We think this clarifies what the boundaries of that narrow exception are.’’
    The judge’s clarification, Gist said, should provide more protection for forested wetlands nationwide.
    Billy Birdwell, a spokesman for the Corps’ Savannah district, said he didn’t know if the agency would appeal Edenfield’s ruling. He had no other immediate comment.
    When the lawsuit was filed in 2006, owners of Cypress Lake said they wanted to harvest trees for pulpwood and mulch to pay for repairs to the spillway that regulates the lake’s water level. They also wanted to clear some trees to make the water more accessible to more than 40 lakeside homeowners for boating and fishing.
    The owners were dropped from the suit after they agreed not to harvest any trees pending the outcome.