A little good news for trees and critters in the upper Priest River area in northern Idaho. After years of battling the U.S. Forest Service and it’s work games, a federal judge wasn’t fooled by the “happy talk” and sent the agency back to the drawing board. This by no means is the end of this battle, but it does demonstrate, I believe, that the simple strategy of endless pressure, endlessly applied can produce positive results, even in the face of overwhelming odds against winning. The misuse of the “categorical exclusion” to NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) is one of the Forest Service’s favorite administrative maneuvers to further one of the primary neo-liberal economic principles: deregulation.
Always good to stay positive, even when the world seems like it’s crashing down upon us. This piece appeared first in CounterPunch, April 30, 2021. https://www.counterpunch.org/
APRIL 30, 2021
The upper Priest River area in the Idaho Panhandle National Forest has the largest contiguous area of old-growth cedar, hemlock, and grand fir in the interior Western United States and the largest concentration of ancient cedar stands in northern Idaho. Because of the bowl-shaped topography the high ridges on three sides capture cold air in the lower elevations and trap cool moist air in the summer. The result is that the low-elevation winter snowpack is deeper and more persistent than elsewhere in northern Idaho and summertime conditions are relatively moist and cool compared to neighboring areas which makes the area less susceptible to wildfires.
Nonetheless, the Forest Service’s Hanna Flats logging project included clearcutting 1,109 acres, commercial logging on 734 acres, 360 acres of pre-commercial logging, and 149 acres of prescribed burning to supposedly protect the “wildland-urban interface” from wildfire. It’s worth noting the clearcutting was strongly opposed by local residents who cherish this area for its natural beauty and abundant recreational opportunities.
Fortunately, the federal court in Idaho saw through the ruse and on April 27th, handed down a decision that found Trump’s Forest Service violated federal law when it “categorically exempted” this commercial timber sale from the environmental analysis requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Healthy Forest Restoration Act (HFRA).
The Court held that “[b]y not using the statutory definition of a wildland-urban interface, the USFS violated HFRA, thus rendering its use of the categorical exclusion unlawful” and noted that the Forest Service never provided a clear explanation of how the entire project area could be defined as a “wildland-urban interface.” In one explanation, the Forest Service used a definition that includes all areas within two miles of a home, but as the court noted “there is no way of knowing whether the Project would have fallen within the wildland-urban interface as defined by the 2012 Wildfire Plan because it is unclear whether all Project units are within two miles of human habitations.” In another explanation, the Forest Service argued that the entire county was a wildland-urban interface, but again the court noted “the relevant question, however, is whether it should be, under the requirements of HFRA.”
This is critically important because a forest next to a community – the ‘wildland-urban interface’ has fewer environmental safeguards than a remote forest. The Trump administration tried calling almost everything a wildland-urban interface in an illegal attempt to evade environmental protections for native species such as lynx and grizzly bears and old-growth forests.
The Court held: “It is not enough to simply declare that the Project is within a wildland-urban interface, especially when the intended purpose of doing so – as in this case – is to avoid the requirement of preparing an EA (or EIS) as would otherwise be required under NEPA. There must be something else that connects the dots and thereby would support Defendants’ position that the categorical exclusion under HRFA applies to the Project.” The court concluded: “In short, simply saying that the Project is within the wildland-urban interface, without more, does not make it so.”
The Court further held: “whatever definition (uncertain or lacking entirely) of wildland urban interface the USFS applied to the Project, it did not clearly take into account at-risk communities as required by HFRA – uniquely defined therein as either (1) an interface community (with three or more structures per acre or a population density of 250 people per square mile), or (2) a group of homes/other structures with basic infrastructure and services within or adjacent to Federal land. To state – as Defendants do – that a community wildfire protection plan (like either Bonner County’s 2012 or 2016 Wildfire Plans) by itself suffices to establish a wildland-urban interface for the purpose of invoking a categorical exclusion, ignores these realities…The Court must give meaning to all the words used in defining wildland-urban interface and thus cannot read out HFRA’s explicit incorporation of at-risk communities in the definition of wildland-urban interface, or ignore HFRA’s simultaneous definition of at-risk communities themselves.”
Because the Forest Service violated clear federal law, the Court halted the Hanna Flats timber sale project and remanded it back to the Forest Service to apply the legal definition of “wildland urban interface” and determine whether the project legally requires environmental analysis.
I would like to thank Paul Sieracki and Jeff Juel for all of their help in stopping this project. Paul lives in the area and is a retired Forest Service biologist/geospatial analyst. He frequents the Hanna Flats area for nature appreciation. Jeff Juel works for Friends of the Clearwater.
We won this challenge, but the battle to protect the Priest River’s old-growth forests is not over. We’d be grateful if you want to help the Alliance protect this unique area at allianceforthewildrockies.org
Mike Garrity is the executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies
This just filed. This is another insane project in a Montana roadless area near Augusta, Montana. Killing trees by logging and induced fire to, perhaps, prevent “…uncharacterictic wildfire effects…” is as crazy as it gets. Death and destruction, death and destruction, it’s all these government agents have ever known. We’re going to fight (in federal court) it out on this one, we’ll see what happens.
Conservation groups challenge logging project on Rocky Mountain Front
https://montanafreepress.org/2021/04/30/conservation-groups-challenge-logging-project-rocky-mountain-front/Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council want to stop the 10,300-acre Elk Smith Project on the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest.by Amanda Eggert 04.30.2021
Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council filed a lawsuit Wednesday asking the U.S. District Court in Great Falls to stop a 10,331-acre noncommercial logging and prescribed burn project in a roadless area southwest of Augusta.
The project calls for the removal of small-diameter trees and prescribed burning in an area that burned in the Canyon Creek Fire of 1988. In a preliminary analysis of the Elk Smith Project, the Helena-Lewis & Clark National Forest said the area has accumulated concentrated and continuous fuels that make it vulnerable to high-intensity, high-severity fires that could threaten private property east of the forest boundary. The agency says natural and cultural resources in the area are also at risk.
In the complaint, the conservation groups argue that the project would adversely affect the aesthetic, recreational, scientific, spiritual and educational interests of their members and saidthe Forest Service’s proposal violates the National Environmental Policy Act, the Administrative Procedure Act and the Roadless Rule.
The Roadless Rule holds that inventoried roadless areas like those involved in this project are generally unavailable for timber harvest. The Forest Service has argued that this project is eligible for an exception because it would “reduce the risk of uncharacteristic wildfire effects … expected to occur under natural disturbance regimes.”
In a press release about the lawsuit, Alliance for the Wild Rockies Executive Director Mike Garrity challenged that claim, saying the Forest Service’s own documents show the area has not significantly diverged from historical natural conditions.
In a January press release about the Forest Service’s decision to move forward with the Elk Smith Project, the agency argued that the project would limit risk to fire personnel and landowners when lightning-started wildfires occur in the area.
“The Elk Smith prescribed fire project is all about managing future lightning-caused wildfires that are likely to occur here in the Rocky Mountains,” said Michael Munoz, the district ranger for the Rocky Mountain Ranger District of the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest.
The plaintiffs say the forest’s roadless areas are particularly important because they protect clean drinking water and serve as “biological strongholds” for endangered and threatened species like grizzly bears and lynx that might be present in the project area. They also say the project would adversely impact wolverines, which tend to steer clear of areas that have burned or been logged, according to a study in the Canadian Journal of Zoology.
The Greenfields Irrigation District also opposes the project out of concern that vegetation removal will negatively impact snowpack in the area by reducing the shading effect of forest cover. The GID has also argued that the Forest Service failed to address soil erosion and sedimentation impacts that could result from prescribed burning.
The Elk Smith Project has been under consideration since 2013. Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystem Council sued to stop the project last April, and the Forest Service decided to pull it from consideration shortly thereafter. Last August, the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest put it back on the table. It’s slated to begin this fall and expected to take five to 10 years to complete.