As environmental, conservation and sporting organizations, we were alarmed to see the Forest Service plans to log and burn a whopping 85,000 acres in the very headwaters of the Little Salmon River. So the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Native Ecosystems Council and the Idaho Sporting Congress challenged the project in court and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in our favor last week to stop the Lost Creek-Boulder Creek Timber sale in the Payette National Forest in western Idaho.
We won because the Forest Service tried to change existing Forest Plan standards so it could proceed with this massive logging project. It’s especially important because Boulder Creek is a tributary to the Little Salmon River and the headwaters of the West Fork of the Weiser River. The area is federally designated Critical Habitat for bull trout recovery.
In reversing the district court, the Ninth Circuit Court held that the Forest Service’s decision to approve the Lost Creek-Boulder Creek Project was “arbitrary and capricious” and “constituted a violation of the National Forest Management Act.” Specifically, the Court held that the Forest Service had proposed to manage the forest in a manner that was clearly inconsistent with the Payette Forest Plan and that the agency had improperly adopted a new definition of “old forest habitat” that eliminated protections for thousands of acres of old growth forests in the Lost Creek Project area. The Court instructed the district court to vacate the Forest Service’s 2014 approval and send the proposal back to the agency to comply with the law and Forest Plan.
We also challenged the Forest Service’s failure to reinitiate consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the endangered bull trout. But while the lawsuit was pending before the Ninth Circuit, the Forest Service decided to reinitiate consultation for the bull trout over its entire range, including the Payette National Forest. Because that’s precisely what we wanted them to do in accordance with the Endangered Species Act when we took the case to district court, the issue was ruled moot by the Ninth Circuit decision — but was definitely a win for bull trout.
Additionally, the Forest Service estimated that the project would have cost taxpayers a whopping $12,429,619. In essence, the Forest Service decided it was more important to subsidize the timber industry with this huge money-losing timber sale in federally-designated bull trout Critical Habitat than it was to recover bull trout as legally required by the Endangered Species Act. The last thing you want to do in bull trout critical habitat is bulldoze 25 miles of new roads and log 40,000 acres including 6,100 acres of commercial logging within Riparian Conservation Areas.
The principal reason bull trout habitat is trashed on the west side of the Payette Forest is the Forest Service’s mismanagement through logging, road-building, and overgrazing. This project would have continued the Forest Service tradition of irresponsible habitat destruction despite of the fact that the agency’s former fisheries biologist, Dave Burns, wrote in the first Forest Plan that trout habitat on the west side is 50 percent below habitat capacity. The new roads and clearcutting would have reduced the remaining habitat even further.
We’re glad the Ninth Circuit agreed with us on this project. It’s always tough to take the federal government to court, even when it is clearly breaking the law. But as planned, this project would have cost taxpayers millions of dollars, cut down rare, old growth forests, resulted in more sedimentation of vital spawning streams that harms bull trout recovery efforts and means fewer salmon and steelhead for Idaho’s present and future generations.
Mike Garrity is the executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.